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Norman Conquest and Consequences

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 Defenders

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.

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  1. S.Y. Lee

    On October 11, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    As a tertiary student in English history, I must protest the objectivity of this article. There are far too many generalizations (such as, I quote, “Poetry and literature were scorned as “priestly” pastimes”); and the authenticity of several statements in here is rather suspect. In fact, if we were to refer to several credible sources for the aforementioned example (like the writings of historians Baugh, Freeman, Holzkneckt and Shelly), one could even argue that the literary movement had persisted, healthy and strong; into the Middle Ages. What had changed was the introduction of vast quantities of French literature; which was only natural in that the royal patrons of poets and their ilk were now of Norman heritage. That there were notable works from these times, including Samson de Nanteuil’s “Proverbs of Solomon”, Henry II Wace’s “Roman de Brut” and “Roman de Rou”, should be enough proof.

    I will not contest the presence of negative consequences amongst the conquest’s effects. Like any other forcible takeover of a nation observed in the past, it brought about much bloodshed, turmoil and suffering; especially through the atrocities committed in the Harrying of the North, the like of which is seldom witnessed even in the war-riddled history of England. However, the fact remains that it should be the interest of any ethical site dedicated to public enlightenment to refrain from projecting personal sentiments upon their contributions, whatever the subject; lest it risks compromising its reputation.

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