Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Norman Settlement

Steve Muhlberger

The Norman Conquestisone of the more obvious turning points in English History, an event that in retrospect divides all English history into two. There is no reason to think that even William of Normandy intended it to be that way.

 The death of many English nobles in battle, plus the fact that William's followers expected to be rewarded for faithful and efficacious service, meant that much land would change hands. But this was no more than had happened in Cnut's time. In 1016, many substantial men, the ordinary and middling thegns, had been left in peace.

At first, William followed a policy much like Cnut's. Indeed, he was milder.He left three earls in place, Edwin, Morcar, and Waltheof, and used the established power of the English monarchy to assert his authority in those parts of the country -- most of it north of London -- not actually under Norman occupation.  William, like Cnut, had another realm elsewhere that demanded much of his attention. The last thing William needed in 1066 was to cause himself unnecessary trouble in England.

But William was soon put into a position where he had to either thoroughly subdue England by force, or give up and go home. His choice, to fight, shaped the Norman settlement of England.

Very soon after his Christmas, 1066 coronation, William felt it necessary to return to Normandy.  He also took with him to Normandy the natural leaders of the English: all the surviving earls, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Edgar Atheling. Nevertheless, there was trouble. William returned and put down these first revolts easily, but new ones followed.

The great northern revolts of 1069 and 1070, which are recorded in some detail in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, were the most serious challenge that the Conqueror faced in England.  The ability of a southern ruler to control Northumbria was never completely sure. Northerners had alternative rulers available to them: the King of the Scots and  the King of the Danes.  In 1069-1070, William faced not just the proud Northumbrians, but also Edgar Atheling, the heir of the house of Wessex, Edgar's ally Malcom Canmore, and a Danish fleet sent by King Svein Estrithson.

After William had beaten the challengers, he systematically harried Yorkshire and other parts of Northumbria and northern Mercia to make sure that these areas would never again dispute his rule. He sent armies through the countryside, depopulating large areas and making them uninhabitable. The Harrying of the North destroyed the prosperity of York and ultimately had the desired effect.

After a further major revolt that involved the English earls, the new king eliminated Englishmen from nearly all positions of responsibility. The property of the English nobility was confiscated and redistributed to Norman warriors. William ended up redistributing almost all the land of England in a twenty year period.

The English aristocracy of 1066, especially the middle ranks, was an old and comfortable aristocracy.  The Normans, Bretons, and other Frenchmen who replaced them were hungry men. They were foreigners with no cultural connection to the people they ruled, and so they became even more of a military class than they might have been otherwise.

One of the great symbols of Norman rule in England is the castle, and it is an accurate one.   The English of course were not strangers to fortifications. But the chief English fortifications had been burhs, built, maintained and garrisoned by the free men of the district. The early Norman castles were meant to keep down the population and protect the foreign masters.  (They did this job very well.)

Another symbol of the Norman era is the knight, a mounted armored soldier who is a specialist in war and usually bound to a greater lord by strong personal bonds of vassalage. None of these elements was new to England in 1066.  But all of these elements of warfare were newly emphasized in Norman England.  The Normans were in the forefront of cavalry tactics, which tended to make warfare more expensive and more specialized.

William encouraged the creation of a new chivalric aristocracy. When he granted out land to his higher-ranking subordinates, he did so on the understanding that they would guard his castles and more importantly that they would supply him with armored, mounted, well-trained knights.

This expectation of service in return for land was defined later by lawyers into a number of principles. One was that all land in England was ultimately the king's and that tenure was granted conditionally, in exchange for what was called knight-service.  Great lords, the tenants-in-chief of the king, fulfilled their obligations of castle guard and knight service -- which were not well-defined at the beginning -- by surrounding themselves with poorer knights who were their own vassals.

In the earliest days, most of these lesser vassals lived with the lord, or in one of his castles, and were rewarded with money or other favors. The tenants-in-chief began soon to subinfeudate. A knight would be given part of his lord's property, which he would hold as a military tenant. Like the estates of the lord, the knight's land would be a hereditary possession of his family unless he betrayed his lord or the male line died out.

William the Conqueror's division of England into fiefs owing military service created a second governmental hierarchy parallel to the earlier hierarchy of shires and hundreds. Shires and hundreds still had tax obligations and still on occasion provided English free men to fight in the fyrd. But at the same time England was divided into military fiefs, called feudal honours or later, baronies. Each great lord, meaning each tenant-in-chief of the king, had an honor court, a right of jurisdiction over his vassals, whether landless stipendiary knights, or military tenants, that is knights who had received land from him. Thus the crimes and disputes of the Norman military class were often settled in a legal arena quite distinct from that used by everyone else.

This applied most of all to the retinue of the king. All the tenants-in-chief were subject primarily to what we might call the king's feudal court. They were all his vassals, and owed attendance at his court, where he judged them by the standards appropriate to their place in society and their special relationship to him

The small upper crust, two hundred tenants-in-chief and a few thousand knights and their families lived in a world of their own. The native English found their status correspondingly depressed.

The geburs of 1066 became the villeins of 1086. Geburs had been free men, with some access to the public courts. They had the wergilds of free men, even if they were economically subservient.

After the conquest, wergilds ceased to be used, and formerly free men with little property and heavy labor obligations found themselves to be villeins. Villeins -- a French word -- were considered unfree, and eventually were entirely excluded from the shire and hundred courts, at least when they had disputes with their lords.  These ended up in the lord's manor court.

Sokemen and the lesser thegns also found themselves farther down the social scale. Whatever their rights, they were certainly not part of the new ruling class, which was distinguished not only by language, but by a distinctive type of military obligation, knight service, one that few Englishmen were capable of fulfilling, and by the military tenure and feudal status that went with that obligation.

Before we leave this subject, two more aspects of the Norman settlement of England should be referred to, if only briefly.

First, the church. After the great revolts, William decided that he could not leave the great church corporations in English hands. He was encouraged in this attitude by the difference in styles of piety between England and the Continent, which led him and other Europeans to conclude that the English church was in need of reform to bring it up to snuff. Very soon all English bishoprics and abbacies were filled with continentals, not all of them Normans.

This change spelled the slow doom of Old English as a literary language. It was replaced by Latin, which was the administrative language of England for most of the rest of the Middle Ages, and the chief literary language as well. French also became a literary language, though it took a while to become established. Again we see the native population was shut out of the highest ranks of society and foreigners and foreign standards predominated.

Second, the conquest enhanced the power of the English king. William destroyed the old earldoms, and did not replace them. His earls, except in border regions, were much less powerful than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Also William acquired in the course of his reign not only all the royal property, but the family property of all the earls of 1066. Even after granting out much of it, he was fabulously wealthy.  He was perhaps the strongest ruler of his day, and he left a reputation -- for strength, if not humanity -- that has scarcely faded with time. When he died in 1087, he left big shoes to fill. His sons had a hard time filling them.


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.