History of England

Lecture: Norman England

Reminder: You are responsible for links to videos and all class documents (in bold and marked by small book). You are not responsible for material at external websites, so these links are optional.

Lecture Outline

See a clip that picks up where we left off, with a discussion of the influence of Norse on the Anglo-Saxon language. This is from The Story of English with Robert McNeill.Click here for Audio


Normans and Feudalism

The Norman invasion of 1066 is taught to many English schoolchildren as the beginning of British history, primarily in courses where political history is emphasized. To some people, English history is just a disorganized jumble of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings until the Normans instill some order and settle down for "history proper".

The word "Norman" derives from "Norsemen" or "Norse", and refers to the Norse-settled area which is now northern France. William the Conqueror was descended, like King Harold whom he defeated, from King Harold of Denmark. (William himself was quite a guy, as you can see in the small bookAnglo-Saxon Chronicle). By the 11th century, those marauding Vikings had been settled for some time throughout northern Europe, but their arrival had caused a new political system to develop. This system, feudalism, became the "norm" (no pun intended) in northern Europe, and thus England, for the entire Middle Ages.

 Click here to open document in new window

Back in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings had attacked as maritime raiders. They were seen by the Saxon Britons (and other residents of Europe) as large, pagan, evil people who came by sea to plunder and then leave. Their technique left little time for kings, like Alfred, to respond from a seat of centralized government. An army simply could not be dispatched to a coastal town from Wessex in the event of Viking attack; the speed with which the Vikings raided was known throughout Europe and every ruler had the same problem. The result was a form of decentralized government that ultimately became feudalism. It appeared first in France, which had been raided fiercely by the Vikings who later became settled Normans and adopted the system themselves. Decentralized rule fit in well with the cheiftains of the Vikings, who were rewarded in grants of land. The Normans brought the system, already highly developed, to England in 1066.

In the tradition of feudalism, all of England became William's personal territory, or "fief". Fief comes from the Latin feudum, and there was a Germanic tradition stretching back to Roman times of granting land to retainers as reward for loyal service. The difference here was the William granted land to his retainers in return for ongoing military service to him. For example, a baron was given a huge land grant, and then was responsible for providing 5,000 knights to William's army. The baron could then give smaller fiefs to his retainers with the same contract. Barons or lords were at the top of this "feudal pyramid", with small landholding knights at the bottom. Thus feudalism was a military contract: service in return for land. At first, the land could be rescinded each generation. The estate or manor of a knight who died reverted to the lord or king, with his family becoming the king's wards. Over the years, lords bargained for perpetual contracts so they could pass their lands down to their heirs. Also, at first the contract was oral, in the Germanic tradition. A fief would be symbolized by a clod of earth, handed from the lord to the knight in front of witnesses. Later, feudal contracts were written down, as you can see in last week's document, small bookPeasant Dues/Feudal Contract.

 Click here to open document in new window

Your loyal instructor braving the elements at the White Tower

Knighthood was thus an honor and an obligation. The age of maturity for a man was considered to be 21, because few younger men had the strength to manage the large horse and heavy sword, lance, shield and armor required of a warrior. Castles were also important to the great lords, whose lands had to be defended even when they were off fighting for their king. Eighty-four castles were built in England in the first generation after the conquest. The White Tower (the central structure of the Tower of London) was begun within 3 months of the Norman invasion; it was at first made out of wood and earth within the angle formed by the Roman east and south stone walls of Londinium. Rebuilt in stone, it was completed ten years after William's death, in 1097. At 90 feet, it was the tallest building in London, intended to intimidate the Anglo-Saxons with Norman strength. It served as a military fortress and residence for the king, with the original entrance up a flight of wooden steps that could be burned in the event of a siege.

Click here for Audio Part 2For women, the Norman conquest was no boon. Anglo-Saxon laws and customs were of Germanic origin, with respect accorded for females. Germanic traditions included queens and regents; women also ran Christian monasteries, had to consent to their own marriage, and inherited property in their own right. But since feudal law was based on the military-land contract, women became merely caretakers of others' property. Marriage was an economic contract, arranged by the father without need to consult his daughter. Husbands legally owned their wives, and only widows could own land (which rarely happened, as most overlords made widows their wards to increase their property). In some places, it was even a tradition for the lord to bed his vassal's wife on her wedding night, before her own husband! English women of the land-holding class would find themselves responsible for culture and caretaking rather than politics and public life.

William the Conqueror divided his holdings between his sons in his will. Robert would take Normandy, while William Rufus got England. Rufus was a rude brother and wanted to conquer Robert so he would have Normandy too. He established unfair taxes in England to raise his armies, revealing the potential for tyranny in monarchs. Later, under Henry II, small bookJohn of Salisbury would write about the dangers of monarchs ruling as tyrants. When William Rufus was killed by an arrow while hunting (an accident?), his brother Henry took over and promised to rule under the law, but didn't. In addition to having little respect for such rulers, the Anglo-Saxons were livid about unfair laws and practices. A good example was the forest law, which said the king could declare any area "royal forest" and have exclusive rights to all the game, with harsh punishments (chopping off hands and such) for poachers. Anglo-Saxon law had no game restrictions, and peasants were accustomed to supplementing their diet by hunting deer. By 1200, the "royal forests" (where such traditions were outlawed) took up 25% of England's land.

 Click here to open document in new window

The English language did change as a result of the Norman invasion, but not as much as you'd think. What Norman French did to English was provide some savoir faire. Unlike the encounter between Anglo-Saxon and Norse language, French and English did not combine. Rather, French added many synonyms to English. This increased the possible nuances (a French word) in the language, shades (Anglo-Saxon) of meaning that create a subtle (Latin) and flexible (Latin) form of communication. For example, The Story of English notes the Anglo-Saxon word kingly (that is, referring to the king). The Normans added royal, regal and sovereign. Each has evolved a slightly different meaning over the years. Other examples of this subtlety are rise/mount/ascend, ask/question/interrogate, or time/age/epoch.

Why didn't Norman French simply take over Anglo-Saxon(-Norse)? First, because Old English was well established by then, thanks partly to the Scandinavian infusion. Also, Normans intermarried with the local people in short order, eliminating strict cultural divisions within a century. Also, when King John lost control of the Angevin lands in France, English lords with estates on both sides of the Channel had to make a choice. They had to declare allegiance to either England or France. Thus the lords declaring allegiance to England became truly English, and spoke the local language.

However, during the first century of Norman rule, elites spoke French and ordinary folk spoke English. Henry I was the only Norman king who could speak much English (and only because he had a local wife). The Story of English notes that, in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill made a speech in plain old Anglo-Saxon: "We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fights in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Only the last word, surrender is Norman French; the rest is Anglo-Saxon. Was it coincidence or an attempt to appeal to the ordinary English person?


Some people confuse manorialism with feudalism. What feudalism was to the military system of medieval Europe, manorialism was to the economic system. Manorialism was based on the manor, or estate, that ran the fief. As the Normans took over these fiefs in England, they received the villages and people of their areas as part of their "demesne" (domain). The manorial contract provided protection for these people, primarily peasants and a few manual workers, in return for agricultural labor. Great lords thus owned large manors and governed greater numbers of people than knights with small holdings.
Manor map

The agricultural fields on a manor were divided into strips, with every third strip or so produced for the lord. This ensured that both bad land and good land were divided fairly. Agricultural production was the source of wealth for the lord, the reason a lord wanted land. The terms "nobles", "aristocrats", and "upper class" all signify the same group: landed lords who lived off of the agricultural labor of their peasants. These peasants did not participate in the endless wars over land; only nobles actually performed as warriors. Agricultural surplus, including wool and herbs, could be sold at market to provide more income for either peasants or lords. Rotating crops ensured both fertility of the soil and a fair share of good land for the lord's sections.

The Angevin Dynasty

After Henry I's death, a civil war ensued over the throne between Matilda (his daughter) and Stephen (his brother-in-law). Stephen won but was a lousy ruler, and in the next generation Matilda's son Henry of Anjou invaded England. Henry of Anjou's father was Geoffrey Plantagenet, the count of Anjou in France. Henry Plantagenet got Stephen to name him heir to the throne of England, and he took over in 1154. His vast landholdings included England, Normandy, Anjou and lots more of France thanks to his later marriage to Eleanor of Acquitaine. We call this the "Angevin Empire", after his title of Anjou.

Henry II

In England he was Henry II, and he is known for four interesting events or situations: the development of English common law, his battle with Thomas Becket, his relationship with Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his family's inability to get along.

English Common Law

The first was the founding of English Common Law, his most important achievement. Henry was the first fully literate Norman ruler; he knew Latin and hired learned administrators acquainted with Roman law. His achievement was possible because he was willing to work with Anglo-Saxon traditions, instead of eliminating them and causing vast discontent. In the case of subpeonas, he adapted the old English system of "frankpledge", where all villeins (unfree men) over the age of 12 were responsible for finding and bringing the accused to court. Henry strengthened the system by making the sheriff (from shire reeve or administrator of the shire/county) responsible for the frankpledge.

He was equally innovative in prosecution, where the old system had the injured party (or his/her closest kin) accuse and then prove the charge in battle. Henry added a "presentment jury", where 12 men of each township were responsible for bringing the charge in the cases of robbery, theft or murder. This is the forerunner of our modern grand jury system. For reaching a verdict, the old system was also changed. Anglo-Saxon tradition believed in trial by battle for felonies, and ordeal by fire or water for other crimes: small book"Trial by Ordeal".

 Click here to open document in new window

The survivor of battle or ordeal was the victor in the trial. Henry made all defendants stand formal trial after the ordeal, even if they survived. If the evidence was against the accused, s/he was banished. By 1200 this became a formal jury system, deciding cases based on evidence.

In civil cases, Henry saw law as equal to order in the kingdom. Lords fought continually over land, forcing widows to become wards and stealing territory when a lord died. Henry developed writs, which could be purchased by any free man. A writ forced the sheriff to form a jury to decide land disputes fairly, based on evidence. Ultimately, royal courts summoned by writ replaced the little courts run by local lords. This, in turn, gave the king more power. Although in the 11th century all testimony, oaths, and decisions were oral (in the Germanic tradition), a hundred years later they were written down, creating the idea of precedent which is the bedrock of common law.

Thomas Becket

Highly stylized depiction of Henry and Becket

The biggest threat to total Norman control over all of England was the English church, which set itself and its laws apart from Henry's system. Technically, the church everywhere answered only to the Pope in Rome, not local leaders. In England, the church had large landholdings (over one-third of all occupied territory), paid no taxes, and ran its own courts. Henry set out to control, and hopefully tax, the church by using the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury. England had two archbishoprics, one at York and the more influential one at Canterbury, near London. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been appointed by the Pope, died, Henry appointed his Chancellor and closest friend into the position: Thomas Becket.

Instead of doing what Henry wished and expected (i.e. agreeing for the church to be taxed and for all cases of the clergy to be decided in royal courts), Becket became fanatically devoted to the church. He became the Pope's greatest defender of ecclesiastic independence at a time when the Pope's authority was being threatened by many European kings. Henry wanted to be rid of Becket, but he still loved him as a friend and was at a loss for what to do. In a drunken moment, he complained about Becket to some of his equally drunken barons, saying something like, "will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" His barons loyally tracked down Becket in the cathedral at Canterbury and murdered him. Henry spent the rest of his life doing penance for this act, being whipped by the priests representing the institution he'd sought to control.

Eleanor of AquitaineEleanor

Henry didn't have much better luck with his wife than he did with his friend. He married Eleanor before he became king of England, at the age of 19 (she was 30). She had an interesting past already. She had inherited the vast duchy of Aquitaine, in southern France, at the age of 15, and had married the young King Louis VII of France, who was trying to expand his holdings. She liked being Queen of France, but it turned out she didn't like Louis, who was pious and serious where she was fun-loving and active. The most fun thing he did was go on Crusade to the Holy Land, and Eleanor had insisted on going with him for the adventure. She had an affair with her uncle, Raimond of Antioch, which led to a scandal that embarrassed Louis. Louis got the marriage dissolved by the Pope in 1152, and two months later Eleanor married the young Henry, count of Anjou. She undoubtedly loved him; we don't know what he thought of her but he sure liked adding Aquitaine to the Angevin Empire.

Eleanor bore Henry seven children while he bedded various women of her household. She established her own court at Poitiers in France, developing chivalric culture there and bringing those ideas to England. Ultimately, she took sides with her son Richard against her husband, and spent much of her declining years under house arrest at Henry's order.

Family Feud

How did this family feud emerge? Henry II was rightfully concerned about securing his heir before his death (remember, he had taken advantage of such a conflict to become king himself). His eldest son was Henry, and after arguing with the church over doing so, he had Young Henry crowned so they could rule together. The young Henry was 15 at the time, and was already married to a French princess. The idea was that upon the death of Henry II, Young Henry would inherit Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Normandy, and England. The next son, Richard, would get Aquitaine. The next son, Geoffrey, would have to be provided for: his father married him to the daughter of the duke of Brittany and fought alongside his son to secure Brittany for him. But there was a fourth son, John, known as "Lackland" because he could not be provided for. For John, Henry arranged marriage to the daughter of a northern Italian count, but he had to throw money and holdings into the deal as well as John. So in desperation he gave John three of the castles promised to Young Henry.

By then Young Henry was of age, and the giving of the castles sparked a family feud. Each son used the barons to fight each other; Eleanor took sides with Richard against her husband (who favored John) and was arrested. Then Young Henry died of dysentery in 1183. Of the whole family, Young Henry had been the most likeable and the one who inspired the most loyalty among the barons, and now he was gone. Henry II expected everyone to move up the ranks: Richard would take Young Henry's holdings, and John (now 16 years old) would get Aquitaine. Richard wanted all of it, including Aquitaine, and Eleanor wanted it for him. Henry II took his son John to France with an army to fight his wife and Richard. Geoffrey, the other son, died of wounds in this war. In the meantime, the young king of France, Philip Augustus, formed friendships/relationships/alliances with both Richard and John alternately, attempting to position himself to gain land from the war. The battle was a draw, Eleanor was locked up for life, and Henry II died miserably as he discovered John was forming an alliance with Philip Augustus against him. Robin Hood

Richard, as eldest, became king, and gained respect among the barons for managing to control Aquitaine and use Philip Augustus against his father. But Richard wasn't that interested in rule; he liked Crusades. He spent most of his reign as King of England on Crusade in West Asia. This is the time of the legend of Robin Hood, where the Sheriff of Nottingham (employed by John) tries to take over the lands of lords loyal to Richard (such as Robin). While Richard was gone, Philip Augustus allied with John and tried to take over the Angevin lands in France. Eleanor (now 71 years old) called up defenses for Richard and saved Aquitaine. When Richard returned, he pardoned his brother John but attacked Philip Augustus, dying in the battle.

John I

Now at this point, Richard's son should have been the next king. But John seized the throne for himself, and became either the most misunderstood, stupidest, or most unlucky king in English history. My professor at UCSB, C. Warren Hollister, used him as an example of what he called "Triangular Tension", the on-going battle for power among kings, church and nobles during the Middle Ages. Certainly John had trouble with all three rivals.

John lost most of the Angevin Empire to Philip Augustus of France, who attacked John's holdings and annexed Normandy itself in 1205. English barons possessing lands in Normandy did not receive help from John, and lost against French troops. His trouble with the church was over his appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury (remember, the Pope reserved the right to appoint all bishops, though he had accepted Becket). Pope Innocent III (who wasn't innocent at all--he's called the "lawyer pope") appointed his own candidate to the position and forced John to accept it by using the tool of interdict. Interdict closes all the churches in a country, depriving the ordinary population of sacraments crucial to salvation (baptism, marriage, last rites etc.). He also excommunicated John, expelling him from the community of all Christians. These tools were designed to create rebellion against John, and although England went without church services for six years, John ultimately had to give in. Innocent was not satisfied, however, until John not only accepted his Archbishop, but actually made England itself a personal fief of the Pope (see the letter from small bookInnocent III to John).

 Click here to open document in new window

By this time, the English barons (the nobility) were fed up with John's incompetence/bad luck/whatever. They hated John for losing the Empire, and putting the whole country under the thumb of the Pope. Many hated him personally, for John liked to bed their wives and force large dowries to be given to the king when their daughters married. He taxed everybody, even the Jews "for their own protection", and took noble families hostage for not paying taxes. The barons forced him to sign small bookMagna Carta in 1215, and to agree to their counsel in all matters. He signed it, then did whatever he wanted to, but the document provided the foundation for the establishment of Parliament.

 Click here to open document in new window

Courtly Love and Chivalry

Although women under Norman rule were allowed little in the way of political life, they were acknowledged as cultural leaders. Eleanor of Aquitaine was an exception, of course, since she was both a potent political force and a trendsetter in chivalric culture. The ideas of chivalry came from Arab and Persian culture, and were brought into Europe through the Crusades (with which Eleanor was also, obviously, familiar). The basic idea was that of love, not earthly love (which was considered sinful by the church) but a pure love, a love which enobles the lover. The church itself was able to make use of this idea by promoting the Virgin Mary, already heavily worshipped in the eastern Mediterranean, as a model of love and compassion. In chivalry, the hero is the knight, enobled by his pure and impossible love for the lady, a love which inspires him to brave and noble deeds. Ladies

The tournament is a good example of chivalric culture. After the Viking invasions had stopped, and the Vikings/Norse themselves settled in the 10th and 11th centuries, Europe was stuck with a militaristic culture and no invaders to fight. The result had been numerous petty wars among lords and knights over land. The tournament, like the Crusades, was intended to provide an outlet for this violence while preventing war. The knight could prove his valor individually in combat, within a controlled setting and inspired by a lady. This lady was often the wife of the lord sponsoring the tournament. Sounds adulterous, yes? But the fact that chivalric culture could use a married woman as a symbol for an unmarried knight emphasizes the point that the female in this scenario is untouchable. A true "lady" is pure (or faithful to her husband), up on a pedestal to inspire and be admired. She is above the baser aspects of love (such as sex); she is the object of "courtly love".

The Arthurian legends were being developed during this era, sometimes, as with small bookGeoffrey of Monmouth, as actual history. The story centers around the court of Arthur. This court is a model of chivalry, comprised of knights who fight valiantly for Christian values. Arthur's wife Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot, one of the knights. So long as he loves her, and she is just a passive symbol and inspiration, all is well. But when she returns his love, and their love becomes sexual, not only do they have to die but Arthur's entire kingdom falls apart. When the chivalric model is broken, chaos ensues, and a moral ending follows. But the popularity of this story, and similar ones such as Tristan and Isolde also display the sexual undertones that were understood and accepted, if only as violations of the ideal.

 Click here to open document in new window

So what did women get out of chivalry? Lower and middle class women got nothing, because they didn't have the leisure to participate in the culture. As the name implies, "courtly love" was the prerogative only of the nobles. But aristocratic women, like Eleanor herself, controlled chivalric culture. They patronized troubadours, who spread the values in song. And in a way this increased the status of females in the culture, because prior to the new emphasis on love and the Virgin Mary, the church and society had considered women to be the embodiment of Eve, the temptress. On the one hand, a new image of women as the embodiment of the Virgin Mary was more respectful to females. On the other hand (my interpretation), it took women out of the sexual sphere and turned them into objects of a different kind: untouchable and therefore not real.

The Norman ChurchDurham Cathedral: England's oldest extant Norman church

The church played a role in this transition in the image of women, actively encouraging the new devotion to the Virgin Mary. Many "Notre Dame" cathedrals were built at this time, and many monasteries dedicated to the Virgin. Monasticism (the creation of communities of monks and nuns) expanded during the Norman period in England, although the idea of monks went back to the original ascetics and hermits practicing original Christianity. In 10th century France, the Benedictine order had promoted the ideas of poverty, chastity and obedience (plus manual labor) for monks, and this order had been brought to England. In France and elsewhere in Europe, the monasteries tended to be separate from the rest of the church, having little contact with the priests and bishops who made up the hierarchy. In England, monasteries were closely connected with the formal church, which gave them a unique character.

In 1086, there were only 48 monastic houses in England, with about 850 monks and nuns. By 1154 there were 805 houses and 5000 monks and nuns. This change didn't have much to do with the Norman rulers themselves, but with an increase in piety among the nobility. Nobles (out of guilt perhaps for killing so many other nobles?) founded houses, granted land, and got the monks to pray for them.

Monasticism also provided opportunities for women, rare in the Norman world. Abbeys could be run by abbessess as well as abbots. And the monasteries provided a "dumping ground" for "unmarriagable" daughters of the upper class, or daughters for whom fathers were unwilling or unable to provide a dowry. A generous amount given to a monastery could both provide for a willful daughter and get a nobleman some badly needed prayers. Unfortunately, even the highest abbeys were controlled by male-dominated chapters, and there is a long history of conflict, with chapter heads trying to prevent female control by enforcing new rules. Nuns were known to stamp their feet and walk out of meetings.

Monastic life was a routine of vocal prayer at certain times of day. A typical day might be:

2-3 am sing Nocturns (now Matins), Lauds, and chants
listen to a lengthy reading, then back to bed
dawn sing Prime
morning meal and work, business meeting
9 am Terce (a short service)
wash, dress, read, work
12 noon Sext service
work and read, work in Scriptorium on manuscripts
3 pm None service
work, eat while listening silently to a reading, read
4 pm Vespers (long evening service)
dusk sing Compline, then bed (silence enforced, no fooling around)

A great amount of learning took place in monasteries, as monks were educated in Latin and hand-copied church texts. Monasteries were also the center of medical knowledge in many communities; most had herb gardens and some knowledge of medicines and folk remedies. Some also knew a lot about agricultural techniques, since many houses were founded on poor land and had to drain fens or clear forests to make themselves self-sufficient. Many raised sheep, and became wealthy on the profits of wool (the poverty rule applied to individual monks, not to the monastery, which could become rich and a source of political power).

The two great sources of knowledge, faith and reason, seemed to co-exist well in the monasteries. Because the houses were isolated, monastic learning emphasized what was practical and useful. They were apart from the great scholastic controversies of the 12th century, when cathedral university intellectuals throughout Europe tried to utilize Aristotle's logic to examine scripture and were opposed by the church. You have an early document showing how useful such examination can be, in St. Anselm. As commerce expanded during the High Middle Ages, being able to argue for religious truth became necessary. Because the Crusades and trade with the "east" brought not only new ideas of chivalry, but new ideas of truth that threatened Christian orthodoxy.

Check your Knowledge

Choose the best answer, then Submit.
To close the answer window, use Close or Esc.
You can take the assessment as many times as you wish, but you need to reclick ALL your answers, even the ones you got right!

1. Feudalism was:
a) a military system.
b) an economic system.
c) highly beneficial to the local population.
d) invented by the Celts.

2. Henry II's greatest achievement was related to:
a) monasteries.
b) a better relationship with the Roman Church.
c) law.
d) the Magna Carta.

3. According to John of Salisbury, rule without law is:
a) necessary for the king to retain control.
b) beneficial to all in the kingdom.
c) democratic.
d) tyranny.

4. In this lecture, I portray the Magna Carta as:
a) the beginning of democracy
b) an effort by elites to control the king's power
c) a successful restraint on John I
d) the document that tells us about Robin Hood

5. Which of the following was NOT true about monasteries during this era?
a) they were a dumping ground for ugly women
b) there were few of them and they were not popular
c) prayers were scheduled and life followed a strict routine
d) they provided medical services to the community

Free JavaScripts provided
by The JavaScript Source


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.