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