History / Medieval

King and Conqueror: a Partner in Britain’s Multi-Cultural Present

As Mark Hagger will show you, William the Conqueror is very much a partner in Britain’s multi-cultural present.

William: King and Conqueror

There are very few historical figures that almost everyone has heard of. William the Conqueror is one of them.

There are even fewer historical dates that lodge in the collective memory, but 1066, the date of the Battle of Hastings, the anniversary of which is just a few days away (14th October), is one of them. Why is that? Why do the British—and the English in particular—recall the name and date? Why were we subsequently inspired to note that ‘we, conquered by William, have liberated the Conqueror’s land’ as a memorial to the D-Day landings? Was this sentiment an acknowledgement of the link between England and Normandy, or was it inspired by a sense that the score had now been settled?

William of Malmesbury had already tried to balance the scores c. 1125 when recording how William’s son, Henry I (1100–1135), had conquered Normandy from his brother in 1106. Henry could be presented as English, even though he was a Norman, because he held no office in Normandy and was estranged from his brother. He was thus an honorary Englishman. It was the living connection with Normandy that was William’s problem. Had he been a landless foreigner instead, then his distant kinship to the English kings might have made him as acceptable as Edgar Ætheling. It was the conflict of interest and divided loyalties that was—and is—the problem.

These divided loyalties and what was perceived, even at the time, as a plundering of England to enrich Normandy has meant that William and his Normans are seen as the enemy of the English. In best Robin Hood tradition they are seen as having trampled on the weak so as to feather their own nests. Worse still, they are thought of as French, rather than Scandinavian, which adds a whole other layer of historical prejudice to the common perception of our conquerors. Somehow it makes the Norman Conquest worse than those which had preceded it. Cnut’s victory over the English at Assandun in 1016 led to a purge of the English lords, and a redistribution of their lands to his Danish followers, while his foreign wars saw the English taxed to the hilt. Yet that does not excite the popular imagination in the same way.

In any event, the Normans—or at least Norman lords— were not generally French (although some, like the Taisson and Tosny families, were). Most were descendants of Vikings who had settled in what was to become Normandy from the end of the ninth century until the second decade of the eleventh, and who had slowly been subjugated by the dukes who ruled at Fécamp and Rouen and—but only from William’s day—Caen. These Vikings had established themselves as the new top-layer in Norman society, and retained a sense of their Scandinavian descent after 1066. Roger of Montgommery, later earl of Shrewsbury, declared himself ‘a Norman descended from Normans’, and Earl Hugh of Chester knew that his great-grandfather was a certain Ansfrid the Dane. Many of their men and subjects, however, would have been French, and thus the descendants of those who had lived in Normandy before the Normans took control of it. It was to this long-established and largely undisturbed population that the Normans owed their knowledge of the estate boundaries, local customs, and administrative structures that survived their invasions and settlement.

William: King and Conqueror

A view of the battlefield at Hasting from Battle Abbey.

William: King and Conqueror

Battle Abbey, which stands where Harold fell.

That continuity can be seen in England, too. The lands of the English who had fought and fallen at Hastings were taken and given to Norman lords, it is true, but others remained in possession of their property. As Ann Williams noted, ‘nothing is more likely than that many median thanes and free men remained in situ’. They had new lords now, but they also had new opportunities. Furthermore, the earldoms had been shuffled and re-arranged under Cnut and Edward the Confessor, so such changes were nothing new—although perhaps the scale was. The services that tenants were to perform, or the rent they were to pay, probably stayed the same, for the Normans looked to the local community and to existing records for precedents and figures. Their reliance on the existing English population for such information is best revealed in lawsuits, where Normans relied on the English suitors of the shire courts to reach verdicts based on a communal memory that stretched back to before 1066.

This is not to say that nothing changed on 14 October 1066, although historians now days see as much continuity as change. The Norman Conquest was a difficult time for those who lived through it, but the eleventh century was a difficult time generally, with famines and invasions and rebellions both before and after 1066. William was a civilized man who fought like all civilized men of his day, who respected the Church more than many of his peers, and who won a reputation of peace and justice which was, after all, the main purpose of a king.

William respected English institutions and laws, taking up the English writ and the English great seal. English remained in use as a written language of government, as well as a spoken one, probably until the end of William’s reign. Indeed, even during the reign of Henry I (1100–1135) some royal acts were written in English. William also maintained the fineness of the coinage. Indeed, he was responsible for an innovation here, which is among his more surprising legacies to the British. William increased the weight of the English penny to 22.5 grains, making it equivalent to the coins of the archbishops of Cologne and thus much sought after in international trade. The result was the coining of a new word to describe the English currency—sterling. Here, as in so many other ways, the Normans are not just part of Britain’s history, but partners in its multi-cultural present. ■

Mark Hagger is Lecturer in Medieval History at Bangor University and the author of William: King and Conqueror. Out now, this biography provides new insights into William’s life, from his birth at Faliase in Normandy to his chaotic funeral at Caen in 1087.

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3 thoughts on “King and Conqueror: a Partner in Britain’s Multi-Cultural Present

  1. An interesting article on this complex man and complex times. I’ve written a couple of novels about Edgar Aetheling (The Lost King series) so I’m interested in your discussion of William who I paint as rather a black character.

    It’s good to remind people that the Normans were not French. I wonder whether the English at the time would have thought them more Scandanavian than French?

    The whole issue of continuity or change is a fascinating one. I guess that for many people there was little sense of change; the seasons came and went and their lives remained very similar. The change in power and outlook, however, must have been much more marked. I suspect there may have been some grievance that the rulers spoke a different language and lived by different laws but maybe this is a modern perspective.

    I’m interested in your comment about William being a civilised man. He did support the church but didn’t he take a lot of English wealth (both lay and ecclesiastical) to enrich Norman churches? I think this may have been more about power than anything else. And the harrying of the north aroused critical comment in his own lifetime.

    I’ve just tried to buy your book by following the link but it says the book is out of stock. I’ll shop around for it.

    • Hi, Martin. Thank you for your comments. I don’t want to deal with them all here, because I want to consider them in an article I’m (hopefully) going to be writing for ‘History Today’ magazine. I will pick up on a couple of them, though. William was certainly a civilized man, according to the measure of his day, and a pious one. The protection that he gave to the Church was commented on favourably by Pope Gregory VII, and that pope was not slow to criticise rulers if he thought they deserved it. It’s true that William did take some objects to enrich Norman abbeys and cathedrals after the Conquest, but we are very poorly informed about the details. William of Poitiers remarks on the jewelled crosses that were given to continental houses, but seems to imply that they had come from the treasure that Harold had collected. A little later he mentions that treasure had been amassed ‘for the empty enjoyment of avarice, or to be squandered shamefully in English luxury’, which might be a reference to the same royal treasure, or to the goods of men killed at Hastings, or to property owned by English churches which was surplus to requirements. It is not clear, then, that this was in any sense a plundering of the English Church, and it is notable in this respect that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes no complaint about any such plundering until 1070. Even then there is uncertainty about what this comment means. It may be that William was after the money that laymen had stored in the abbeys in the hope that it would be safe there, rather than Church property. In any event, the abbey at Peterborough still had very valuable ornaments later in 1070, as they were stolen by the Danes who attacked the place in that year. Furthermore, some complaints seem not to have had a basis in reality at all. The monks of St Albans, for example, blamed William for felling their forests, but that was far more likely to have been the work of William Rufus. That fact, however, did not fit with the yarn that they wanted to spin and so history was re-written accordingly.

      Incidentally, the ‘Harrying of the North’ was only criticized by Orderic Vitalis, who was writing fifty years or so after the event. Other contemporary writers noted that it happened, but while they lamented the suffering it caused, none suggested that William had done anything wrong by acting as he had. This was the way that war was fought in the eleventh century and later (as I’ve noted at greater length in the book, pp. 98–101), and that was widely understood, even if it might be lamented, too.

  2. Thank you for a really interesting read. The eleventh century is not my preferred historical stamping ground, (that’s the late fifteenth) but a teacher of history can’t let personal preferences get in the way of the job. Some of the points you’ve made here will find their way into Year 7 history lessons on the Norman Conquest (suitably credited of course).

    It’s sometimes been said that had Duke William’s army been defeated (possibly by a more canny Harold Godwineson less in a rush to bring him to battle) that England’s social dynamic and political affiliation would have remained Scandinavian for the forseeable future. A reasonable point?

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