1066 is a date lodged in the minds of Englishmen everywhere, but were the Anglo-Saxons really barbaric and the Norman’s civilized? What was the result of the clash of two cultures a millennium ago?
There are literally hundreds of books about the Norman Conquest, and 1066 is a familiar date to those interested in British history. Most know that King Harold led a courageous stand at Hastings, but that he was ultimately defeated by a more disciplined and structured army under Duke William of Normandy. But these are simply facts for schoolboys to memorize, and it can take hours of slogging through such facts before one can begin to examine the effects of that invasion.
Perhaps it’s time to rectify that situation.
The common misconception is that, before the Normans arrived in England, the English were Nordic barbarians. This is simply not true. The English of the early eleventh century were a cultured people, particularly the nobility. Extravagant dress was the order of the day at the court of King Edward the Confessor (AD 1042-1066). The Normans are even on record as thinking the English fashion “effeminate.”
Many in the English upper classes could read and write, and literature was prized. As a society, the English were pious, although the English Church was not necessarily orthodox, as its isolation provided some freedom from canonical rigidity. Of all the “crimes” of which the Normans accused the English nation, only religious unorthodoxy, really “different-ness,” held any weight, and even this claim was largely a matter of semantics. At this time, the English language was very closely related to German, and is commonly called “Old English,” and most English people were of Germanic descent.
In the English army, cavalry was nonexistent, and the chief defensive tactic involved the construction of a shield wall. The entire army would form a massive line, about eight men deep, every soldier overlapping his shield with that of the man to his left. This tactic provided excellent protection from an advancing enemy, but at the cost of maneuverability.
Finally, the English government was quite unlike that of any other European nation. The real power in England rested in the hands of seven earls. The kingship did not necessarily pass from father to son, and neither was the king all-powerful. The successor-who had to be descended from Alfred the Great (9th century AD)-would be a man of standing in the nation, and had to be approved by the witan. The witan were essentially a “proto-parliament,” a council that advised the king. In theory, any freeman could serve on the council, though in practice such suffrage as it permitted was generally reserved for the nobility. There were, however, also various local assemblies where peasants served in greater numbers.