The Norman Yoke: 1000 years of Norman occupation

Above: The Royal Arms of England, almost identical to the coat of arms of Normandy, symbolising (almost 1000 years of) Norman occupation.

Who was England's first Norman king?

William the Conqueror?

No, it was a man named Harthacnut.

In the Year of Our Lord 1035 Harthacnut, son of the Viking Cnut, King of All England, and Emma of Normandy (known in England as Ælfgifu), became England's first king of Norman blood, via his mother. In 1042 he died and was replaced by an even more Norman man, his half-brother (of the same mother) Edward, son of King Æthelred the Unready. Edward, later to be canonised as Saint Edward the Confessor, had spent much of his life in Normandy (1013-14, we must assume for much if not all of 1016 - 1036, and from 1036 - 1041). He was at the most 10 years old when he was first expelled to Normandy, at the most 13 when he was secondly expelled, and, apart from a brief holiday in 1036, it wasn't until he was at the most 38 when he finally returned. 13 - 38 is a long absence. Therefore, he was England's first king to be culturally Norman and was ultimately responsible for all the Normanisation which followed his reign, by promising his Throne to one of his kin. I personally believe that St Edward is the patron saint of good people who make terrible mistakes, for it was his failure to make clear his successor which led to all the terrible bloodshed after his death.

It is fitting that Æthelred the Unready, an English king famous for his uselessness against the Viking hordes, by wedding a Norman in order to ally against said hordes, ultimately caused the final defeat of Anglo-Saxon England by the Vikings, for that is what the Normans were. The clue is in the name - Norman = Northman. They were the Viking colonists of what is now Northern France. As time progressed they assimilated with the local Romance-speaking population, although the Norman language to this day still has Norse words. It should be stressed that they were not French - the French nation as we know it was yet to exist. If you mean by "they were French" that they were "Franks", the origin of the French name, then I will have to disappoint you, as the Normans generally hated the Franks. The fact that our royalty was Norman is actually the whole root and reason of the English wars and rivalry with France. Anyway, despite being assimilated into the local population of Normandy, the Normans never lost their Norse seafaring spirit (perhaps it is fitting, then, that they should have ruled our maritime nation) and this is why the mighty Norman empire was forged, which came to include England.

It was traditionally believed that Saint-King Edward the Confessor took mainly Norman advisors. While this is being refuted by modern historians, he did have foreigners in his royal household, including a few Normans who became unpopular. For example, the Vita Edwardi claims that Robert of Jumièges (though he may not have been a Norman exactly, he was still of Northern France) was Edward's closest advisor, who became Bishop of London and ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the faint beginning of the Normanisation of England, so that when the Conqueror finally arrived in 1066, he found some of his countrymen were already here.

Even if King Edward did not have a court full of Normans as was formerly believed, in 1051, when he was feuding with the powerful Earl of Wessex Godwin and his family, he apparently promised William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the Throne of England. However, in 1052 the relationship between Edward and the Godwin family had been restored, and so on his deathbed in 1066, according to the Vita Edwardi (and not even Norman sources dispute this), he named his brother-in-law the son of Godwin his heir. This latter promise was affirmed by the English magnates and clergy which composed the Witenagemot, the body which elected and advised English monarchs in the Anglo-Saxon period, when they chose this son of Godwin, named Harold, as rightful King.

Every schoolchild in England is familiar with the story which followed. In 1066 King Harold Godwinson rushed Northwards to defeat the invading Harald Hardrada, King of Norway (who had a good claim himself to the English Throne which I shan't go into for fear of getting sidetracked) in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, before having to rush back South to fight the invading William, who had also come to take what he believed was his, near Hastings. Through no fault of his own (his warriors recklessly pursued retreating Normans, thus breaking the English shieldwall and allowing the Norman cavalry to cut them to pieces) Harold Godwinson was slain and his army defeated. The fifteen-year-old Edgar Ætheling, grandson of King Edmund Ironside, was elected King on 15th October 1066 by the Witenagemot, but the Anglo-Saxon regime crumbled as the Normans advanced, and by 10th December he and his supporters had submitted to William, who was crowned on Christmas Day.

If you consider Edgar a true English king (for he was never crowned), and if you define Englishness by blood*, then Edgar was the last English king who was actually English, and the last to be elected. This was, therefore, the end of the original elective English monarchy, and the beginning of a single line of blood-related Norman hereditary monarchs which continues to this day. Her Majesty The Queen is still (informally) the Duke of Normandy (and monarch of the culturally Norman Channel Islands), and is still (an albeit distant) part of this same line, and descendant of the Conqueror. William's coat of arms are still a part of Her Majesty's. The Norman lions still fly in her Royal Standard wherever she goes, and her motto is still the French Dieu et mon droit (from Richard the Lionheart, one of our Anglo-Norman kings).

William's invading army had contained Normans, Bretons, Flemings, and Franks. Many of the noble families of modern England can trace their lineage back to these warriors, who were rewarded for their service with land and titles stolen from the native English aristocracy which was entirely replaced. Hence, the Anglo-Norman aristocracy which continues to exist to this very day was born. One would be hard pressed to find any (old money) rich man in England who doesn't have Anglo-Norman ancestors. Many of them have visibly Norman or French surnames. Examples include Percy and Darcy; see here.

Approximately 8000 Normans and other continentals immigrated to England altogether, while the English population at the time was approximately 1.5 million, so there were less than 1 invaders for every 15 natives.

A huge effect the invaders had was on the lingo. Old English, which had been a respected written language since Alfred the Great, was replaced in official documents with Latin. The new Anglo-Norman aristocracy didn't bother to learn English and the Norman language (which developed into its own strand called Anglo-Norman) remained the first language of the aristocracy for four hundred years (which is understandable when one considers that the post-Conquest monarchs were largely absent from England until after 1204 when Normandy was taken from them; it was a similar situation with many of the barons too). Henry IV (reigned 1399 - 1413) was the last King of England to have Anglo-Norman as his first language, and the first to swear his oath in English. His son, Henry V (reigned 1413 - 22) was the first to write in English. Only by the end of the 15th century was Anglo-Norman/French relegated to the aristocracy's secondary language, but even in later centuries was it used by them frequently. Charles I is said to have spent much of his time speaking French rather than English, because it was still considered by the elite of the time a fairer tongue (and probably still is - see the paragraph beginning "The legacy of the replacement of English...").

English was replaced in literature with Latin and Anglo-Norman, until Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 - 1400) revived it. Anglo-Norman/French was spoken in the courts from the 12th century onwards, evolving into a dialect called Law French, until the practice was finally formally abolished in 1731 (having mostly fallen out of use in the years before then). However, Law French survives in many legal terms the English-speaking world uses today, such as attorney general,  fee simple, lawyer, force majeure, pur autre vie, voir dire, plaintiff, defendant, etc., etc., etc. Likewise, heraldic blazons are also still written with heavy Anglo-Norman influence, for instance, the blazon of the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom:

Quarterly, first and fourth Gules three Lions passant gardant in pale Or armed and langued Azure (for England), second quarter Or a Lion rampant within a double tressure flory-counter-flory Gules (for Scotland), third quarter Azure a Harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland), the whole surrounded by the Garter; for a Crest, upon the Royal helm the Imperial Crown Proper, thereon a Lion statant gardant Or imperially crowned Proper; Mantling Or and Ermine; for Supporters, dexter a Lion rampant gardant Or crowned as the Crest, sinister a Unicorn Argent armed, crined and unguled Proper, gorged with a Coronet Or composed of Crosses patées and Fleurs-de-lis a Chain affixed thereto passing between the forelegs and reflexed over the back also Or. Motto "Dieu et mon Droit" in the compartment below the shield, with the Union Rose, Shamrock and Thistle engrafted on the same stem.

But, as I'm sure we all know, the courts and coats of arms aren't the only places we can find the linguistic legacy of the Norman Conquest.

Today, about 28% of English vocabulary comes from French, including Anglo-French, due to the Gallic influence of the Anglo-Normans. Due to the upper class status of the Anglo-Normans, most of these loanwords concern the fields of culture, aristocratic life, politics, and religion (something similar can be said of our Latin vocabulary (29%), a language which, as mentioned previously, our Anglo-Norman rulers and writers also used). For example, most of our aristocratic titles are Anglo-Norman (e.g. prince, duke, countess, baron, etc.) with the exceptions of king, queen, lord, lady, and knight, derived from the Old English cyng, cwen, hlaford, hlæfdige, and cniht respectively (for these are the few aristocracy-related words the native English commoners would have said on a regular basis (the reigning monarch & his wife being major public figures even to peasants, the titles "lord" and "lady" being used by peasants to any passing noble, and knighthoods being one of the most lowly and frequent honours); therefore they survived; although the Anglo-Norman word royal has largely replaced the native English word kingly, which means the same thing). Interestingly, the Old English title earl survives, although the wife or female equivalent of an earl is called the Anglo-Norman countess. Surely this would make an earl a count (although in the Anglo-Saxon era they were really more like dukes)? So why wasn’t that word also replaced? Geoffrey Hughes writes, "It is a likely speculation that the Norman French title 'Count' was abandoned in England in favour of the Germanic 'Earl' […] precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to c@!#".

Likewise, the upper class nature of the Anglo-Normans, and the working class nature of the native English, can be seen in the fact that generally the Anglo-Norman words for animals became the words we use for their meat (e.g. pork, beef, mutton), while the Anglo-Saxon words for animals became the words we use for the beasts themselves (e.g. pig, ox, sheep). In short, the native English farmed the animals while the Norman aristocrats ate them.

English spelling was also changed by the Anglo-Normans who wrote English words as they heard them, without knowledge of Old English grammatical rules (yes, you have the Normans to blame for the English language’s eccentric yet strangely beautiful spellings). Because of the need for communication between the native English and the foreign invaders English became a grammatically simpler tongue in comparison to Old English; it wasn’t just a matter of gaining some new words as many supporters of "Anglish" seem to think. If the Norman Conquest had never happened, and assuming no other culture invaded, the English language would be more like the Frisian languages of the continent. Here’s “The boy stroked the girl around the chin and kissed her on the cheeks” in North Frisian (Mooring dialect): Di dreng aide dåt foomen am dåt kan än mäket har aw da siike. Thank goodness I don’t speak like that!

The legacy of the replacement of English with Latin and Anglo-Norman/French in the upper classes is that to this very day we find French or general Romance language words to be somehow more "sophisticated" and beautiful than native English words, which we tend to find more rustic. So even centuries after the Anglo-Norman language died out and English returned to government, the courts, literature, and the upper classes, people were (and are) adopting Latin and French words into the language because they prefer them, words like au pair which postdate the Norman Conquest by generations upon generations. This resulted in the inkhorn term controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries and in the 20th caused George Orwell to lament, "Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers." Other such examples include dismiss, celebrate, encyclopaedia, commit, capacity, and ingenious.** Surely we have all met an English-speaker who has thrown French and Latin words into his or her speech in order to seem more fancy or intelligent? Next time you encounter this, tell that person that they are only experiencing insecurity about being an Anglo-Saxon peasant, but reassure them that the Mediaeval age is quite finished and that they may now use Saxon words with pride. We should also stop viewing the Saxons, who formed an ancient and sophisticated civilisation (in some ways, such as in government structure, more advanced than the Normans) as barbarian savages and the Normans as civilised continental Latins. Perhaps our Anglo-Saxon insecurity is what has always led certain factions in British politics (such as that of Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland) to try to merge us into the continental Europe which they find so civilised and superior. Anyway, to get across what I mean by Anglo-French words seeming more sophisticated and Anglo-Saxon words seeming more rural, take a look at the following two sentences. In the first I have avoided all words but native Anglo-Saxon ones and in the latter I have tried to use as many Anglo-French words as possible.

The witch was fastened to a log and burnt at the stake in Woodstow.

Prince Charles is the heir apparent to the reigning monarch via cognatic primogeniture.

Two different sentences, two completely different aesthetics. Both are beautiful in their own ways.

Naturally, the Anglo-Saxon commoners didn't just try to emulate their Norman lords in speech, but in names too. Anglo-Norman names, considered more regal and aristocratic, by and large replaced their Anglo-Saxon equivalents. The name of the Conqueror became the most popular in England, and Robert, Roger, Richard, Henry, Charles, James, Thomas, Geoffrey, and Hugh all in their time became exceedingly popular and replaced their native English equivalents, to the point that "Tom, Dick, and Harry" has become a popular English phrase to refer to "everyone". To this day native English first names are relatively rare (most men and women in England today have names which are Anglo-Norman, Latin, Greek, or Hebrew in origin), and those that did survive, in the case of male names at least, were generally those of famous monarchs, such as Edward (one of the few native English names to be adopted by Anglo-Norman royalty. When it was adopted, it was considered unusual at the time), Edmund, Harold, Alfred, and Edgar.

It is speculated that the Norman Conquest resulted in the spread of towns and concentrated settlements in the countryside (rather than scattered farms). As mentioned previously, William the Conqueror established feudalism as we know it in England (although manorialism had already developed in the Anglo-Saxon era). He also introduced England to the castle, an instrument of Norman occupation which now scatter the country often as idyllic ruins (though some, such as that of Windsor, are still in use by his heirs). While William kept the Anglo-Saxon form of government (excluding the monarchy itself) largely unchanged, throughout his reign most of its personnel on all levels were replaced with Normans and other continentals. What may or may not have been a result of the Norman Conquest was the disappearance of slavery in England, and its replacement with the slightly better serfdom. We know there were fewer slaves in 1086 than there were in 1066 thanks to the Domesday Book. In Essex and other places, 20% of slaves disappeared in those 20 years. The disapproval of the Church and the cost of supporting slaves seem to have been two reasons for the decline, so that by the middle of the 1100s slavery in England had disappeared. However, slavery was not outlawed, and in 1115 the Leges Henrici Prima mentions slavery as legal. And although it is unclear to what extent the Conquest played a part, many free Anglo-Saxon peasants became indistinguishable from non-free serfs.

These are the long-lasting effects of the Conquest we still feel to this day. But what happened to the old English aristocracy the Normans stole the property and positions of and replaced? We know that by 1086 only about 5% of English land south of the Tees was still English-owned, and even this was further diminished throughout the succeeding decades. Within 20 years 95% of land had been stolen. As Wikipedia puts it "Natives were also removed from high governmental and ecclesiastical office. After 1075 all earldoms were held by Normans, and Englishmen were only occasionally appointed as sheriffs. Likewise in the Church, senior English office-holders were either expelled from their positions or kept in place for their lifetimes and replaced by foreigners when they died. By 1096 no bishopric was held by any Englishman, and English abbots became uncommon, especially in the larger monasteries". I do wonder whether the legend of Robin Hood was a fantasy for the poor dethroned English about an Englishman who took the wealth the Anglo-Norman lords had stolen and repatriated it back to them. The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest do bear a resemblance to the "Green Men" of the forests: Anglo-Saxon rebels who nuisanced William the Conqueror and Norman nobles. The Green Man remains a popular figure in English folklore; representations of his face are common throughout the land, and his is the name of many pubs. Anyway, as for what happened to the displaced English, Wikipedia gives us some fascinating insight, "Following the conquest, many Anglo-Saxons, including groups of nobles, fled the country[102] for Scotland, Ireland, or Scandinavia.[103] Members of King Harold Godwinson's family sought refuge in Ireland and used their bases in that country for unsuccessful invasions of England.[69] The largest single exodus occurred in the 1070s, when a group of Anglo-Saxons in a fleet of 235 ships sailed for the Byzantine [a.k.a. Eastern Roman] Empire.[103] The empire became a popular destination for many English nobles and soldiers, as the Byzantines were in need of mercenaries.[102] The English became the predominant element in the elite Varangian Guard, until then a largely Scandinavian unit, from which the emperor's bodyguard was drawn.[104] Some of the English migrants were settled in Byzantine frontier regions on the Black Sea coast, and established towns with names such as New London and New York.[102]"

According to the Chronicon Universale Anonymi Laudunensis and the Icelandic Játvarðar Saga a "great host" of 350 (rather than 235) ships including "three earls and eight barons", led by Siward, Earl of Gloucester (possibly the English rebel Siward Barn), traversed the Mediterranean Sea, having many adventures along the way, to reach Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), where the English refugees fought off a siege by heathens and were rewarded by the Eastern Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. A group of them were given land to the north-east of the Black Sea, reconquering it and renaming their territory "New England". What happened to these English exiles after this is unclear, except for an account of the Fourth Crusade in 1205 which amazingly states that even at this point (long after the Viking and Anglo-Saxon ages had ended), Vikings and Anglo-Saxons were still in the Varangian Guard, defending Constantinople.*** It may well be the case that natives of the Black Sea to this day have English blood. As Wikipedia says, "Evidence of five place names from portolans from medieval Italian, Catalan and Greek navigators of the north coast of the Black Sea support the view of a medieval New England east of Constantinople. It is possible that Susaco (or Porto di Susacho) derives from the word 'Saxon' or 'South Saxons' (from the Kingdom of Sussex, now Sussex). This may be the place that gave its name to the Ottoman fortress of Sudschuk-ckala'h or Sujuk-Qale, now the site of the Russian port city of Novorossiysk.[28] Medieval portolans also show Londina, a place on the north coast of the Black Sea to the north-west of Susaco that gave its name to the Londina river and may derive from the place name London.[28]"

Apart from the taking of their land and the downgrading of their social status, the tyranny of Norman rule was another reason for the flight of the English. Anglo-Saxon peasants were fined if they could not prove that a man they killed was not Norman (this was called murdrum, originally introduced by Cnut when he himself had conquered England). As King William reacted to Anglo-Saxon rebellions, he enforced his rule brutally by, for example, crushing said revolts, building imposing castles to enforce Norman rule, and laying waste to much of the land. The Harrying of the North is a particularly nasty example of this laying-waste. Even Anglo-Normans thought it was wicked, such as Oderic Vitalis, who wrote, "The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him". This Harrying took place in the Winter of 1069-70, but the Domesday Book shows us that even by 1086, Yorkshire and the North Riding still had large areas of waste territory - in all a total of 60% of all holdings were waste. It states that 66% of all villages contained wasted manors. Even the prosperous areas of the county had lost 60% of their value compared to 1066. Only 25% of the population and plough teams remained with a reported loss of 80,000 oxen and 150,000 people. According to Oderic, the Conqueror said on his deathbed, "I've persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people". Whether William really made this statement or not, it clearly depicts the barbarity of the Norman Conquest in the minds of English subjects who lived even twenty years after William's death and sixty years after Hastings (Oderic was writing in the 1120s).

"And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed" wrote Oderic. While the early English rebellions were viciously crushed by William and only provoked him to entoughen his rule, the legend of England being under an oppressive "Norman yoke" continued throughout the centuries, and found expression, for example, in the Magna Carta King John signed in 1215 which guarantees and enshrines English liberties to this day (the rebel barons who forced the King to sign the document believed they were restoring the liberties of Anglo-Saxon England which had been lost in the Conquest, despite the fact that they were Anglo-Normans themselves whose first language was Anglo-Norman). The Elizabethan/Jacobean law reformer Sir Edward Coke (1552 - 1634) believed and stressed that English common law predated the Conquest, and during the English Civil Wars the anti-Royalist factions took inspiration from the idea of the yoke; for example, the leader of the Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley, remarked during this time, "Seeing the common people of England by joynt consent of person and purse have caste out Charles our Norman oppressor, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake", and "O what mighty Delusion, do you, who are the powers of England live in! That while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a Free People; yet you still lift up that Norman yoke, and slavish Tyranny, and holds the People as much in bondage, as the Bastard Conquerour himself, and his Councel of War". Nobody really knows whether England ultimately would have been freer had the Conquest never happened, but the myth that this would have been the case seems to have inspired discontented Englishmen throughout history; not only King John's barons, or English Civil War anti-Royalists, but also the leading American Revolutionaries, such as Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Mayhew, who believed Anglo-Saxon England had been democratic under the Witenagemot which had elected its kings (before the Conquest destroyed England's old elective monarchy). I wonder if, without the myth of the Norman yoke, Englishmen ever would have risen up to secure their rights in the Magna Carta, or to create a representative Parliament, or to replace King Charles I in the Civil War, or to overthrow James II in the Glorious Revolution, and so on.

The Norman Conquest has certainly changed our nation irreversibly, and while the native English suffered terribly in the immediate years after the Conquest, in "the grand scheme of things", as it were, we can never know whether we have ultimately been better off being Anglo-Norman, or whether we should have remained Anglo-Saxon. In any case, there's nothing we can do about it now; goodness knows how many Anglo-French words it has taken me to write this article alone!

*(which I personally find unnecessarily exclusionary).
**Admittedly, our understandable veneration of the relatively advanced Classical world also probably plays a part in this.
***The Conquest of Constantinople by Geoffroy de Villehardouin.