This Day in History 9/28: The Importance of the Norman Conquest

Bayeux_Tapestry_WillelmDuxSince when did a spat among clans of Saxons and Vikings have such an impact on world history?

Today we commemorate such a family feud.  On this day in 1066, William II, Duke of Normandy–also known as “the Conqueror” or “the Bastard”–invaded England on a quest to seize the throne from the sitting monarch Harold Godwinson.  The ensuing climactic struggle, the Battle of Hastings, would have far-reaching effects on both English and European history.  It is an effect that touches all our lives today, including our students.

The problem is an interesting one for students of monarchs and dynastic succession: how do you settle a dynastic dispute with a monarchy that does not have a straight succession?  England’s monarchy was not based on heredity, but rather selected through the Witenagemot, the assembly of nobles and clergy that advised English kings since the 800s.  When Edward “the Confessor” died in 1066, the Witenagemot respected Edward’s wishes and selected Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, as King of England.

Yet a number of foreign nobles were of a different opinion.

Normandy, a state in northern France ruled by Viking immigrants known as Normans, had an ambitious ruler of its own, and he had his own claim to the throne.  William of Normandy, known as the “Bastard” due to a dubious birthright, claimed that Edward promised him the throne 14 years earlier.  Furthermore, Harold Godwinson had alleged pledged loyalty to HIM two years before the conquest.  To make things all nice and legal, William had Pope Alexander II consecrate his claim to the throne, thereby giving William religious as well as temporal legitimacy.

William was not alone.  Harald III of Norway, known as Harald Hardraada, also claimed Harold Godwinson’s throne.  He claimed that his predecessor, King Magnus, made an agreement with the earlier Danish king of England Hardecanute, stating that if either died without an heir, the other would take over as king.  Harald also had a curious ally: Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, who had attempted to seize the throne himself and joined Harald Hardraada’s claim in an effort to dethrone his brother.

Harold Godwinson had two armies going against him.  This is never a good thing, and Harold can’t divide his forces.  He fights what he thinks is the stronger force first, that of Harald Hardraada and his brother Tostig.  On September 25, 1066, after a four-day forced march, Godwinson defeats the Norwegian force at Stamford Bridge

William invades three days later, and wisely decides to wait for Harold rather than chase after him.  By October 14, Harold’s exhausted army finally faces William’s Norman juggernaut at Hastings.  After a murderous day of fighting, Harold and many of his Saxon nobles are killed, and William marches toward London.  On Christmas day, 1066, William the Bastard, William the Conqueror becomes King William I of England.  Every British monarch since William can trace their roots back to this “bastard.”

So why is this blood feud so important?

The Norman conquest changed the face of England.  The feudal system of France was superimposed and strengthened with the complex institutions that existed in Saxon-era English government, resulting in the future development of a Parliament and a protection of basic rights.  The Norman government would forever forge a bond between England and France, for good or ill.  Norman nobility and clergy would dominate England, relegating the local Anglo-Saxon populations to subservience both politically and culturally.  Both groups would eventually intermarry until they evolved into the modern English people.

The most important impact, however, was in language.  Without the Norman conquest, English would look very different than it does today.

The Normans spoke a language that was a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French, so it had words that were familiar to the English of 1066.  French would become the language of government after the conquest, and English would develop alongside among the population, borrowing and adapting French words into their Anglo-Saxon tongue.  What developed was Middle English, and by the mid-13th century this became a language used by both nobility and commoners throughout the kingdom.  The greatest example of this is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Here is the first stanza of the General Prologue, and notice the French influence, along with the connections to modern English.

“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
     The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
     And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
     Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
 5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
     Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
     The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
     Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
     And smale foweles maken melodye,
 10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
     (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
     Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
     And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
     To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
 15 And specially from every shires ende
     Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
     The hooly blisful martir for to seke
     That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.”

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