British History in depth: Overview: The Normans, 1066 - 1154

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Professor John Hudson
Last updated 2011-06-20

A scene from the Bayeux tapestry

The Normans brought a powerful new aristocracy to Britain, and yet preserved much that was Anglo-Saxon about their new possession. What did they change and what did they leave?

Twin invasions

When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, he left a disputed succession. The throne was seized by his leading aristocrat, Harold Godwinson, who was rapidly crowned.

Almost immediately, Harold faced two invasions - one from the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson's brother Tostig, and the other from William, Duke of Normandy.

Harold defeated the Norwegian invasion at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but he was defeated and killed shortly afterwards at the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October in the same year.

At William's death, his lands were divided, with his second son, William Rufus, becoming king of England.

The victorious William, now known as 'the Conqueror', brought a new aristocracy to England from Normandy and some other areas of France. He also strengthened aristocratic lordship and moved towards reform of the church.

At the same time, William was careful to preserve the powerful administrative machinery that had distinguished the regime of the late Anglo-Saxon kings.

At William's death, his lands were divided, with his eldest son Robert taking control of Normandy, and his second son, William Rufus, becoming king of England.

Rufus successfully dealt with rebellions and with the threat of his elder brother (he defeated Robert during an invasion of Normandy), and maintained the powerful kingship of his father.

Following the death of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, good relations between king and church broke down, and the new archbishop, Anselm, became involved in quarrels with both Rufus and his successor Henry I.

Disputed succession

Rufus died in a hunting accident in the New Forest in 1100, and his younger brother, Henry, swiftly and successfully moved to seize the throne.

He further strengthened the ties of the Norman regime with the Anglo-Saxon past by marrying Edith (also known as Matilda), the great grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside, King of England.

In 1106, Henry succeeded in wresting control of Normandy from his brother, Robert, whom he thereafter kept imprisoned. While there continued to be conflict in Normandy, England experienced a lengthy peace during Henry's reign.

The powerful royal government that had characterised earlier Norman kingship broke down.

At the same time, royal government continued to develop, notably in the field of royal financial accounting with the emergence of the 'exchequer'.

Henry's only legitimate son drowned in a shipwreck in 1120, and when the king died in 1135 the succession was again uncertain. Henry's nephew, Stephen, count of Boulogne, seized the crown.

Matilda, Henry's daughter, challenged Stephen's position. She and her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, enjoyed quite rapid success in Normandy, but in England an extended civil war developed. The powerful royal government that had characterised earlier Norman kingship broke down.

In 1153 it was agreed that Stephen should enjoy the throne for the rest of his life, but that he should be succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou.

The settlement might not have meant to have been observed, but Stephen died late in 1154, and Henry was crowned king. He thus added England to his extensive continental lands, which included Normandy, Anjou, and his wife Eleanor's inheritance of Aquitaine.

Fresh conquests

The Normans also expanded into Scotland and Wales, although in a very different way from the conquest of England.

Scottish kings from the time of Malcolm Canmore (1058 - 1093) looked to introduce Norman personnel and practices into their realm, perhaps out of respect for a perceived cultural superiority, but certainly in order to strengthen their own political position.

Particularly under David I (1124 - 1153), major land grants were made to Frenchmen - for example the grant of Annandale to Robert Bruce, ancestor of the later Scottish king of that name.

In Wales, aggressive Norman expansion was led largely by the aristocracy.

The kings and churchmen also brought the Scottish church more closely into line with that of Christendom further south. Malcolm and his wife Margaret founded the Benedictine monastery of Dunfermline, while David I introduced new monastic orders such the Cistercians and Premonstratensians.

There were significant periods of antagonism between Scottish and English kings, but also periods of peace such as in the time of David I of Scotland and Henry I of England.

Norman expansion into Wales took a different form still. Whereas in England the invasion was led by the duke, and in Scotland Normans were invited in by kings of the native line, in Wales, aggressive Norman expansion was led largely by the aristocracy.

Incursions took place all along the Anglo-Welsh border, but most notably in the north, from the earldom of Chester, and in the south. In the latter region emerged the Marcher lordships such as those of Pembroke and Ceredigion.

The English kings did participate in the process, and Henry I in particular was active in Wales. However, with the accession of Stephen in England there was a major reassertion of independent Welsh power.

The Domesday Book, c.1086
The Domesday Book, c.1086  ©

The economy of England had been expanding for at least a century before the Norman conquest, and was characterised by growing markets and sprawling towns.

By the 12th century, one of the ways in which English writers disparaged other peoples, notably the Welsh and Irish, was to depict their economies as primitive, as lacking markets, exchange and towns.

At the same time, kings and lords outside England deliberately sought to stimulate the wealth of their countries, as can be most clearly seen by the introduction of coinage and the establishment of boroughs by David I of Scotland and his successors.

The Domesday Book shows 11 leading members of the aristocracy held a quarter of the realm.

Within such an economy, there was clearly room for men to rise by increasing their wealth. At the same time, it remained a notably hierarchic society, and the process of conquest itself strengthened the role of lordship.

The Domesday Book, the product of William I's great survey of his realm in 1086, shows that the 11 leading members of the aristocracy held about a quarter of the realm. Another quarter was in the hands of fewer than 200 other aristocrats.

These nobles had received their lands by royal grant, and in turn gave some of their lands to their own followers. This form of landholding is often regarded as a key element of a 'feudal' system - a form of social organisation once routinely held to have been introduced by the Normans in 1066.

In recent years there has been considerable debate about the problems arising from the use of the term 'feudal', a debate wittily foreseen by the great Victorian historian, FW Maitland, who said: 'Feudalism is a useful word, and will cover a multitude of ignorances.'

Nevertheless, whatever the wider problems of writing about 'feudalism', the process of Norman conquest and settlement did tie a variety of types of lordship closely together - regarding protection, service, and jurisdiction - and linked them to the bond of land tenure, the holding of what men at the time referred to as a 'feudum' or 'fief'.

The strength of lordship could result in royal weakness and the break-up of large scale political control. This happened in England during the civil war of the reign of Stephen, 1135 - 1154.

Yet it would be wrong to see aristocracy and king, lordship and kingship as necessarily opposed. Kings and lords often regarded one another as natural companions, engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship.

In addition, in England both kings and aristocrats continued to operate in political and judicial arenas other than those defined by lordship. Most notable amongst these were the counties or shires that the Normans inherited from the Anglo-Saxons.

A thousand castles
The Norman-era Clifford's Tower, York Castle, York

The Norman-era Clifford's Tower, York Castle, York  ©

The Normans had an enormous influence on architectural development in Britain. There had been large-scale fortified settlements, known as burghs, and also fortified houses in Anglo-Saxon England, but the castle was a Norman import.

Numbers are uncertain, but it seems plausible that about 1,000 castles had been built by the reign of Henry I, about four decades after the Norman conquest.

Some were towers on mounds surrounded by larger enclosures, often referred to as 'motte and bailey castles'. Others were immense, most notably the huge palace-castles William I built at Colchester and London.

A lord might display his wealth, power and devotion through a combination of castle and church in close proximity.

These were the largest secular buildings in stone since the time of the Romans, over six centuries earlier. They were a celebration of William's triumph, but also a sign of his need to overawe the conquered.

Churches were also built in great numbers, and in great variety, although usually in the Romanesque style with its characteristic round-topped arches.

The vast cathedrals of the late 11th and early 12th centuries, colossal in scale by European standards, emphasised the power of the Normans as well as their reform of the church in the conquered realm.

Buildings such as Durham cathedral suggest the strength and vibrancy of the builders' culture in rather the same way as the early sky-scrapers of New York.

The Normans also continued the great building of parish churches, which had begun in England in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Such churches appeared too in the rest of the British Isles, and can still be seen, for example at Leuchars in Fife.

A lord might display his wealth, power and devotion through a combination of castle and church in close proximity, again as still spectacularly visible at Durham.

Particularly striking are regional groups of great churches, a characteristic too of 11th-century Normandy. One of the most telling examples is the group of border abbeys in southern Scotland - David I's foundation of Jedburgh, still impressive and crowning its hill; the Premonstratensian house of Dryburgh; the Cistercian house at Melrose; and most spectacular of all in the splendour which even the limited remains indicate, another royal foundation at Kelso.


Find out more


Battle of Hastings 1066 by MK Lawson (Tempus, 2003)

England under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075 - 1225 by Robert Bartlett (Oxford University Press, 2000)

William the Conqueror by David Bates (Tempus, 2004)

The Political Development of the British Isles, 1100 - 1400 by Robin Frame (Oxford University Press, 1990)

Anglo-Norman England, 1066 - 1166 by Marjorie Chibnall (Blackwell, 1987)

Colonial England, 1066 - 1215 by JC Holt (Hambledon, 1997)

Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000 - 1306 by GWS Barrow (Edinburgh University Press, 1981)

The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063 - 1415 by RR Davies (Oxford University Press, 1991)

Domination and Conquest: The Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1100 - 1300 by RR Davies (Cambridge University Press, 1990)


About the author

John Hudson is Professor of Legal History in the Department of Mediaeval History, University of St Andrews. He is author of Land, Law, and Lordship in Anglo-Norman England (Oxford University Press, 1994) and The Formation of the English Common Law (Longmans, 1996). He has edited and translated a major twelfth-century chronicle, The History of the Church of Abingdon (two volumes, Oxford University Press, 2002, 2007) and is currently working on the volume of The Oxford History of the Laws of England covering the period 870-1220. His media contributions include interviews for Radio 4's Making History and he is a member of the editorial advisory board for the BBC History Magazine.


BBC - History - British History in depth: Overview: The Normans, 1066 - 1154

This entry was posted at Sunday, August 21, 2011 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .