Normans were recent descendants of Vikings who had settled by force in North East France around the mouth of the Seine River. The land they occupied became known as Normandy from Land of Northmen.  Normandy is well remembered in recent history (World War 2) as the landing place for the British, American and Canadian troops as the first phase of driving Hitler and his German military out of France and to eventual submission.

The Norman Duke, William was friendly with English King, Edward the Confessor and attacked England on Edwards death because he had been promised the English crown by Edward but denied it by the Saxon usurper Harold.

The Normans were militarily three centuries ahead of Anglo Saxon England through the massive use of horses (cavalry) and archers against England’s infantry with old fashioned swords, battle axes and spears. 

England before the Normans had been the best run country in Europe. Norman England plus Norman France became the most powerful and richest territory in Europe but the locals in England were subjected to a ruthless regime and ruled by fear, both by the King’s Norman-French regional henchmen called Barons and Norman-French Clergy. Times could be tough and unjust even though the best Norman Kings tried to bring back old Anglo Saxon rules of law. At least one Norman King was noted to use the punishment of “gouging out of eyes” but it should be remembered that this practice was used all over Europe as far east as Constantinople during this period.

The last Norman King should not have been Stephen but a Queen, Matilda, however the male dominated society at the time could not bring its self to crown a woman. Matilda however got her revenge by negotiating (using the military force of her supporters) her son Henry as leader of the Plantagenet Dynasty which succeeded the Normans.

In brief

  • To the Normans their most important territory was always Normandy, not England even though England was easier to defend and much richer.
  • Today their visible legacy are Castles and Churches through which they ruled with a rod of iron. These impressive building were all built in stone and generally stretched the architects of the day who were the Masons from France. (Stone Masons)
  • The Doomsday Book inventory of England, written largely by the clergy as they were the only people who could read and write, was instigated by William 1st and which still exists as a unique record of the wealth of the country at the time. Similarly the Bayeux Tapestry, instigated by William’s half brother, Odo and now on permanent exhibition in Bayeux cathedral, Normandy, France, visually provides a record of the times in 1066. Said to have been produced by William’s wife Matilda.
  • The New Forest on the North East of Southampton was forcibly commandeered by William 1st as an exclusive hunting ground for the King and his party. The area remains a valuable national park to this day. 

William 1st The Conqueror 1066-1087 (38 when crowned)

King of England by conquest

Please refer to the previous section to read the legal claim William 1st had to the English throne even though he was not a Saxon  but a Viking related to Rollo the first Viking to settle in France. He was known as William The Bastard until he conquered all of England.

William was indeed a “bastard” in that his father and mother never married. His father “Robert The Devil”, Duke of Normandy spotted his mother Arlette, a teenager (15 years old), while she was washing herself in a local stream and her youthful, semi naked, body provided the stimulus for an immediate union and 9 months later William was born. He saw little of his father who was almost permanently at war and was brought up by Arlette until he was 7 when his father went on a pilgrimage to Nicea and was never seen again.

William The Bastard immediately became Duke of Normandy and had three body guards who were straight way murdered. This seven year old wonder boy survived against all odds and kept Normandy intact even though the King of France was regularly attacking to get his land back at the mouth of the Seine.

William was married around 1050 to his cousin Matilda of Flanders and granddaughter of  the King of France when they were both about 22. She produced him 4 sons and 5 daughters between 1052 and 1065. Nine Children in 13 years. He had to get permission from the Pope in Rome to marry his cousin even in those times.

His son Robert became Duke of Normandy, William (2nd) King of England and his son Henry (1st) King of England and Duke of Normandy. 

In 1066 when William 1st  became King of England he inherited the best run and civilised state in Europe, (Forgetting Byzantium).  William’s lands in France needed continuous defence from the French King and in England he had to quell Saxon reprisals for six years and regular incursions by the still barbaric illiterate Welsh and Scottish war lords. The English King now ruled simultaneously in both England and part of France which set the scene for regular land battles over territory in France for the next 500 years.

To enable him to run both territories William ruled England by replacing the old Saxon Earls with Norman French speaking Barons and the Archbishop of Canterbury and all other senior clergy with French speakers from Norman churches. This involved the building of castles and huge churches all over the country. The local Anglo-Saxon population were duly suppressed being intimidated by these huge new buildings. (The Normans were the best stone masons and architects in Europe.) Indeed the Normans were the best military in the whole of Europe demonstrated by the Battle of Hastings (The battle against Harold for the English throne) where Harold was fighting mainly with swords and spears and William with a huge horse mounted division (Cavalry) and disciplined archers with powerful bows. This military superiority enabled him to enlarge his English territories by push back the Welsh and the Scots. Something the Romans had never achieved. The Normans only brought 4000 people into England, probably ten times fewer than the Angles and Saxons and they never integrated hence the genetic English remained as did the local language (vernacular).

William was used to running a country using the “Feudal System” which involved the King owning everything (land, animals and buildings) and everybody else renting it from him. In practise this meant he rented everything to his Barons in return for them providing him with an army when required. In turn the Barons leased out the land given to them (leased from the King) to local farmers and millers etc.

To find out exactly what rent he could charge William had to do an inventory of the country which was completed in 1085 and published in The Doomsday Book. The population of people and pigs and mills and houses in 1085 is listed in this book for anybody to read today.

We have seen that William was a builder of Castles. Two of his best known being the Tower of London (originally of wood for speed of erection) and Windsor Castle.

William died while fighting the King of France in 1087 and his body is buried in the cathedral of Caen in Normandy. He had previously organised  that England should be ruled by his son William Rufus and Normandy by his eldest son Robert. 

Further Notes on King William 1st

  • At the Battle of Hastings William had brought with him in ships over the 50 miles of sea which separates England from Normandy, 6000 horses all shod and with saddles and stirrups. He also had archers as well as foot soldiers with swords, shields and spears. Harold only had the latter. Some say a battle between a 7th and an 11th century army. This military technology remained in England.
  • William governed England and Normandy simultaneously expanding territories in both domains. In France his main adversary was the King of France who ruled only the surrounds of Paris. In England the foreign adversaries were from Wales and Scotland neither of which had been occupied or ruled by either Romans, Anglo-Saxons or Vikings and who were still not ruled internally by one King but by a number of War Lords. William aided by his cavalry and archers sufficiently impressed both countries to keep them out of England when he was in residence. When in France he used his Barons who were generally Norman by birth (some also from Flanders and Brittany) to whom he had rented vast estates along the borders for no cash, in return for keeping the enemy at bay. Any Welsh or Scottish land they conquered could be used to extend their estates and wealth. The Barons used their cavalry and archers brutally generally killing any local war lord they could get their hands on.
  • Scotland just prior to this were ruled in the south by the Irish tribe the “Scotties” who had yet to conquer and then virtually exterminate the original Scottish tribe the Picts. Shakespeare found this period in Scotland sufficiently interesting to form the basis one of his best known plays, “Macbeth”.
  • Only 4000 Normans and French settled in England after 1066 and did not immediately integrate with the locals who they considered not worth breeding with. Initially the educated Norman clergy would have developed the language skills to communicate with the locals. The Barons spoke only French for their first generation. The local English were in a permanent state of terror. The 4000 Normans ruling a country of 2 million should be compared with the some 200,000 Anglo-Saxons who arrived some 400 years earlier when the population was probably less than 1 million and who exterminated the majority of male Britons.
  • William and the Christian church in Rome. William was a Christian King however the Pope would expect a Christian King to visit Rome too seek spiritual guidance. William sort no guidance from the Pope and ordered that all instructions from the Vatican should be addressed to him and not the Church in England. William then decided which theological rules he would agree to send on to his Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Jews had fled from Jerusalem 1000 years previously and had taken up residence in many European countries where generally they were hated and treated as second class citizens not permitted to own property or farmland. The majority of Jews were better educated then their Christian neighbours being taught to read and write and speak two languages. Christians were forbidden by the Church to lend money and this being one of the few trades permitted for Jews they got good at developing syndicates for large scale loans. William in Normandy borrowed from Jews to finance his wars including the invasion of England and it was quite natural for him to bring the Jewish bankers into England to help him finance the development of his new colony. This was the first occasion Jews had been resident in England in any numbers.
  • William 1st was thus the most powerful King in Europe with the best military and the necessary finance.
  • William with his beloved wife Matilda, the daughter of the Count of Flanders, had 10 children, 6 girls and the 4 boys, the eldest Robert became Duke of Normandy, Richard who was killed before his father died while out hunting, by a stag in the New Forest England, William who became William Rufus or William 2nd King of England and Henry who became Henry 1st King of England. A daughter of William 1st Adela, and her French husband Stephen Henry, produced King Stephen of England, see later. 

William 2nd or William Rufus. 1087-1100 (31 when crowned)  

When Rufus became King of England his elder brother Robert ruled Normandy. The English church and English people wanted Robert as king as Rufus was seen to have a ruthless  temperament and the Church did not like his promiscuous homosexual lifestyle.  Nevertheless he consolidated and expanded the boundaries of England into Wales and when the Scottish King Malcolm 3rd  invaded he beat back the Scottish army so decisively that not only did he take back the north western area known as Cumberland but also forced Malcolm to pay homage to him. (Homage in feudal law means to acknowledge as the superior and to pay out some peace money.)

William’s first battle had been in Normandy against his elder brother Robert which ended in a truce when it was agreed that who ever lived the longest would rule the vacant territory. It never come to this because Robert being a religious man was determined to join the First Crusade and to raise money he pledged (pawned) Normandy to William for 10,000 Marks.

William Rufus died out hunting in the New Forest in mysterious circumstances with an arrow in his back. No one knows if it was deliberate or an accident but what is known is that Rufus was very unpopular and that his hunting party disappeared never reporting the “accident” and left the body of the king to be discovered by a Mr Purkiss a local farmer.

Being a homosexual William Rufus left no children.  

Henry 1st 1100-1135 (32 when crowned)

Henry was decisive and quick to act throughout his 35 year reign as is demonstrated by him seizing the English throne from his elder brother Robert who was absent Crusading. He ended up ruler of both England and Normandy with peace pacts with the King of France and the Duke of Flanders. His succession plans were cruelly dashed when, returning from celebrating his deal with the French King, his only two living legitimate sons were drowned off the coast of Normandy in the “White Ship”. England was plunged into civil war as the country was divided over his plans for his daughter Matilda to take the throne as the first ever Queen of England.

Henry, the youngest son of William the Conqueror had no right to the throne but his eldest brother Robert was still away on the First Crusade, so Henry who was in a different part of the New Forest the day Rufus was killed, saw his opportunity, rode swiftly to Winchester and demanded the keys of the treasury. (The town of Winchester just north east of the New Forest held the countries money, not London). In three days this already popular man was crowned King of England and took no time to establish himself as an intelligent, tough but just ruler. At this time he had no wife only a bevy of mistresses (he holds the record in England for the number of illegitimate children he sired-21) so he arranged to marry the Scottish Princess Matilda, daughter of Malcolm 3rd and his Saxon wife a descendant of Alfred the Great. This masterful stroke made him even more popular with Saxon England as the Royal line of Cedric was restored. He did much more.

  • He filled the vacant positions in the Church which Rufus had not bothered to do. Notably he brought back Archbishop Anselm who had fled from Rufus.
  • He made concessions to the Barons for example removing taxes from those who supplied him with Knights.
  • To please the populous he restored the laws made by Edward the Confessor.
  • English territorial boundaries remained stable. 

Robert, finally of course turned up to claim the throne of England, elated from his very successful Crusade where he had been offered the Kingship of Jerusalem. The two armies faced each other at Alton Hampshire but will Henry’s diplomatic skills, instead of fighting, the brothers embraced and a treaty was signed giving him 3000 marks a year to relinquish his claim the English throne.

This friendship did not last and Henry was forced to fight his brother in Normandy. Henry captured Robert and claimed the Dukedom of Normandy.

What happened to Robert who could have been as powerful as his father, the Conqueror, and was offered but did not accept the Kingdom of Jerusalem? Henry kept him in captivity in various castles in England and Wales, (Cardiff Castle) where he died just before his younger brother Henry. 

Henry was determined to sire enough sons to ensure his succession unfortunately only 4 of is 29 children were legitimate.  His first wife Matilda had already died when his two sons were drowned off the coast of Normandy in the White Ship. He quickly took a new “nubile” wife, Alice of 18 years (he was 53 and she was French) but she failed to produce any children. Henry then had to persuade the Barons to accept his remaining legitimate offspring Alice renamed Matilda to reign on his death.   

Stephen 1135-1154, (38 when crowned)

And Matilda 1141 

Stephen by general agreement is the worst King England ever had. He had no right to the throne which both Stephen and the Barons had agreed with King Henry should go to his only surviving legitimate child, his daughter Matilda. 

Matilda was a snob and an Empress being married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry 5th. The rivalry between Stephen and Matilda plunged England into civil war. Matilda nominally ruled England for a few months in 1141 but the flamboyant but useless Stephen got the support of the Barons and Matilda eventually retired in Germany. On the death of Henry 5th she married Geoffrey 4th (The Handsome) Count of Anjou a province in France south of Normandy where she produced 3 sons. She agreed with Stephen to end the wars so long as he agreed to her son Henry becoming the next King of England. Hence Henry 2ndfirst of the Plantagenet Dynasty and perhaps the best King England ever had. 

Stephen married another Matilda, a woman living in France and related to Malcolm 3rd 
King of Scotland and they produced 5 Children including 3 boys. Stephen also sired 5 children with his long time mistress Dameta of Normandy.

Why was he a bad King?

  • He gained popularity through weakness. For example he allowed Barons to build castles on their own land which caused them to always be fighting one another.
  • Hence he could never guarantee support from his Barons in his battles with Matilda. Indeed his whole reign was dominated by civil wars and supporters changing sides. Matilda would never have attacked him if it had not been obvious he was weak and useless. In one battle Stephen was captured outside the town of Lincoln by Matilda’s men and Matilda was given the title of “Domina” or Lady of the English. Nobody could see a woman ruling the country as Queen.

After Lincoln Stephen was clapped into irons where Matilda could gloat over him but released some months later in exchange for Matilda’s half brother Robert of Gloucester who had been taken prisoner in a skirmish near Winchester.

Soon Matilda  got tired of constant battles and when Stephens sons died she agreed  with Stephen that he should keep the throne until he died and then her son Henry would inherit the throne.