Normans were and are inhabitants of Normandy, a picturesque western coastal part of France. They are of mixed descendence, much of their blood being of Scandinavian or Viking origin, the rest Frankish (or French). The Vikings occupied most of Normandy in very early medieval times.
The first known important ruler was Rollo, who secured the area from a king of France. We must remember that France as such was much smaller than it is today. Inheritance laws, being much the same as England’s, were inadequate, since younger sons were left without territory in the testament. The reaction was a hunger for more territory, especially a collection of islands directly to the north called Britain, itself divided into many separate (and usually warring) kingdoms. The man to do the job was an illegitimate Duke of Normandy called William.
The Norman Conquest of England took place in 1066, with the battle of Hastings, where the Saxon king Harold Godwineson) lost his life. Many ill-informed students seem to think this Norman invasion was the only occasion when foreign troops landed, did battle, and occupied parts of England. We know that King Philip of Spain tried this with his three or four Grand Armadas (or fleets); we also know that he was unsuccessful. But there was another invasion in the year 1216, when the French king Louis the Lion took advantage of the weakness of John I and the chaotic civil war occasioned by Magna Carta. In actual fact Louis managed to subdue nearly half of England in that year, even ruling from a base in London! He succeeded of course because most English barons disliked their king intensely and fought on Louis’ side, but their love for the Frenchman was not to last. The English lords gathered under the banner of William Marshal after the tepid and nervous John I was dead, and 18 months after the invasion the invading French left.
Back to 1066, one hundred or so years before: William, nicknamed ‘The Conquerer’ won the battle of Hastings, his soldiers killed Harold, and William soon dominated Wales and some parts of Scotland (but not all). Norman French became the official language of the Court and Government; Latin was used in courts of justice and the Church.
The Normans were still not satisfied, and soon large parts of Europe came under Norman rule. When Henry II, an Angevin who became the first Plantagenet, succeeded to the English throne in 1154, Norman power was at its height, as could easily be seen in the efficient governments of both Sicily and England.
William had crushed rebellions and built around five thousand castles in Britain by the time he died. England’s frontiers were protected by the ‘marcher lords’. His approach to government was through ruthless attention to detail. Typically Saxon institutions such as the treasury, the King’s peace, the Council, county sheriffs and a system of shires were either adopted or developed by the Normans, though most changes in their everyday life were unpopular with the English. They had already lost heavily in terms of status, property and the holding of public office. Norman forest laws were stringent, and taxes were high. The Domesday Book was published through Norman efficiency, though it should be said that many of its facts owed a good deal to existing English documents.
Under Norman care the English began to get rich; towns grew apace, and so did the population. The Church was re-organized, mainly by Archbishop Lanfranc – a Norman. Architecture blossomed under Norman rule (rounded arches and heavy pillars, especially in great churches) and the term ‘Norman-style’ came into use.
In terms of British monarchy, the Norman kings of England, followed by equally French Angevins and Plantagenets must be listed as follows:
William I (the Conquerer)
William II (Rufus)
Henry II (Angevin)
Richard I (Lionheart)
Edward I (Longshanks)
Edward II (murdered by his wife and her lover Mortimer)
Richard II (put to death by his usurper -)
Henry V (winner of Agincourt)
Henry VI (House of Lancaster, founder of Eton and King’s College)
Edward IV (House of York)
Edward V (disappeared with his younger brother in the Tower circa. 1483)
Richard III (‘My kingdom for a horse!’)
The Norman-French family influence lasted for 419 years.