The Norman Conquest

For a short time England was part of an Anglo-Scandinavian Empire under Canute but after 1042 Norman influence increased under Edward the Confessor who promised the succession to William of Normandy.

When Edward died early in 1066, the Saxon “Assembly of Wise Men” [“the Witeagemot” it means “Council of the Wisest”, the members were big landowners, thanes, bishops, the king was supposed to ask their advice on important decisions of the state.] declared Harold king. William, the duke of Normandy, cousin to Edward the confessor, declared himself heir to the throne of England. Having got the support and the agreement to the right of the throne from the Pope of Rome he started preparations for the English campaign in order to sweep the Saxon dynasty forever.

The Normans were the same Northmen who had invaded Britain three centuries earlier. They had assimilated the local people, who were Romanized Gaul Celts by origin, borrowed their language and culture, their advanced civilization, so that the Duke of Normandy headed an already complex society, which was situated in the north of France. Being fully under the influence of Rome, Normans exercised its cultural influence to the benefit of Norman civilization. Church architecture had reached an advanced stage in Normandy.

The Norman army was much better equipped than the English one. The tactics of the Anglo-Saxons did not change since Alfred the Great’s time. They used the great axes and horses to cover great distances. The core of the Saxons army consisted the housecarls, the ordinary people consisted the other part of the army, which was less equipped and worse trained, wished they had been at home to harvest their crops. The Normans had a very effective cavalry and a great number of bowmen, shooting from the safe distance, to let the arrows down hitting the less protected portions of their opponents’ bodies. It was in this manner that Harold, the king of England shot in the eye.

Harold’s acceptance of the Witenagemot’s offer of the crown, was taken by William as sacrilege (he had made Harold’s swear he would support his claim to the throne) and he appealed to all European knights to get on the march against oath breaker. He promised them land and opportunities of plunder.

On September 28, 1066, William of Normandy landed near Hastings. The last Anglo-Saxon king Harold, who a few days earlier had defeated a Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire hurried south. On October 14 William marched out of his camp and attached. In six hours fighting the Anglo-Saxon host was crushed and Harold slain. It was the last successful invasion of England. The strong centralized government imposed by thousand Continental adventurers, distributed Anglo-Saxon estates among Norman barons and their French followers.

The Great Council replaced the Anglo-Saxon Witan (Cora Regis). The majority of English nobles were killed and exiled.

William took their lands and redistributed them among his Norman nobles on terms of feudal military service. The Norman Conquest tied England dynastically, commercially and culturally to the Continent. Many of the ties were beneficial, but England was also committed to an ultimately futile struggle for control of France, which delayed attempts to unity the British Isles.

William the Conqueror installed his followers in castles strategically placed against invasion and revolt. Northumbria was laid waste as a penalty for rebellion. Four fifths of All England’s land changed ownership. As a result of the conquest the English church was more closely linked with Rome and increased its powers Norman bishops were appointed and special over the church and limited interference from Rome. French became the language of the upper classes and Latin the language of the people.

The English village economy was not greatly affected by the Conquest. The Domesday Book, an inquiry into the nature and value of all land herd of the king, was a remarkable and ambitions survey of England conducted by William in 1086 to assess the land, livestock, and population of the country. It is far from complete. It does not cover most of the northern counties, or large town such as London, Bristol and Winchester.

The arrival of the Normans added surprisingly little to the existing place names of the British Isles. There is little significance in the distribution of the few Norman-French names that survive, for they were symbols of class rather than of geographical language units.

Whatever the actual number of Normans settled in England it is clear that the members of the new ruling class were sufficiently predominant to continue to use their own language. This was natural at First, since they knew no English, but they continued to do so for a long time to come.

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