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History explorer: The Norman conquest

Professor David Bates and Spencer Mizen visit Norwich Castle to discover how the people of England adapted to life under their new masters…

Norwich castle
Published: September 12, 2015 at 5:44 pm
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This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


It’s hard to imagine the Norwich skyline without its great Norman keep. It’s there – staring imposingly down on you from atop its lofty motte – when you step out into the city from its bus station. It’s there as you pick your way through Norwich’s market place, the so-called French borough. It’s even there, in the middle distance, as you approach the city’s other triumph of Norman architecture, Norwich Cathedral.

Today, the castle is a popular tourist destination, a fascinating symbol of Norwich’s rich history. Yet, 900 or so years ago – as it was constructed, partly from massive Caen stones shipped across the Channel on behalf of England’s new masters – it would have had many meanings to a local population reeling in the aftershock of regime change.

“From its foundations to the stones atop its battlements, Norwich Castle was about the projection of power,” says Professor David Bates, professorial fellow at the University of East Anglia. “It’s the new Norman regime saying to the people of Norwich: ‘We’re in charge now.’”

A fortification, probably a huge ring-work, had been constructed on the site by at least 1075 – we know this because it’s recorded that year as being the epicentre of a rebellion against William the Conqueror, headed by one of his barons, Ralph de Gael, Earl of East Anglia.

By 1110, the original wooden building within the giant earthwork had been replaced by the imposing stone structure that dominates the skyline today.

The size and scale of the castle is evident from any number of vantage points around the city. But it’s perhaps not until you step inside the keep – which played host to William I’s son Henry I over Christmas 1121 – that you get a true feel for what a huge impact this building would have had on Norwich’s inhabitants. This cavernous space is filled with any number of treasures: among them a 900-year-old spiral staircase (which conveys you to the castle battlements, where you can take in magnificent views of the city), a Norman chapel, a well that’s twice the depth of the keep, and a gloomy dungeon.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the Bigod arch, the original entrance to the keep. Art historian Sandy Heslop has described the arch as “one of the finest surviving entrances to a secular building in Norman architecture”. Yet, incorporating influences from Germany and the Iberian Peninsula, and taking its chief architectural inspiration from models on the river Loire, south of Normandy, it can be suggested that it’s not culturally Norman at all. “It certainly offers us a clue to just what a multicultural place early 12th-century England was,” says David Bates.

In the aftermath of his victory at Hastings, William and his followers built fortifications and installed garrisons in centres of strategic importance across his new kingdom – from Rochester in the south-east and Chepstow in the west to York in the north. But it wasn’t until William’s death, and a second generation of Norman rulers, that many of the great stone buildings that we can still see today began to appear – Norwich Castle among them.

“Norwich was an obvious location for a stone keep because, not only was it one of the kingdom’s great towns, it was right on the frontline in terms of potential threats to the Normans,” says David Bates. “A fleet sent by the Danish king Sven Estrithsson tried to force a landing here in 1069 and an earlier Danish king, Swein Forkbeard, sacked the town in 1004 in the process that led to his son Cnut becoming king of England and ruler of a North Sea empire. In these political circumstances, if there was going to be an attack, it was as likely as anywhere to be right here in Norwich.”

You can only imagine what the Anglo-Saxon residents of the town would have made of this massive new building project. Domesday Book mentions at least 100 houses being razed to make way for the castle. And if that wasn’t enough disruption, a French quarter, or ‘borough’, soon sprang up to the west of the keep, complete with 500 French settlers. Then, of course, there’s the contemporary Norwich Cathedral, just a few hundred metres to the north-east.

Epic scale

To say that Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of England was a traumatic event in the country’s history is an understatement of huge proportions. Regime change took place on an epic scale – something that the historian John Gillingham has described as a takeover “unparalleled in European history”.

“By the time of Domesday Book in 1086,” says David Bates, “almost all the major landowners hail from Normandy and northern France. There’s barely an English tenant-in-chief to be seen.

“The transformation was also pretty brutal in the church. Within a few years of the invasion, the only English bishop still in his post was Wulfstan of Worcester but – and this is important to give us a broader perspective – bishops and abbots from regions of northern France were already being appointed in England before 1066. Indeed this interaction with the continent had been going on since the start of the conversion of the English to Christianity in the late sixth century.”

So why were the English sidelined so comprehensively in the wake of the Norman conquest? Part of the reason, argues David Bates, lies in the enormous gamble that William took in crossing the Channel in the first place. “The invasion of England was a hugely risky undertaking – failure could have had catastrophic consequences for William and his followers. So, like all successful medieval kings, William had to offer rewards and also guarantees of security. This entailed defeating rebellions, granting lands and installing newcomers in places of strategic importance, such as Norwich.”

For Norwich’s new rulers, this meant assuming control of a prosperous city sat right in the pivot of the hugely lucrative North Sea trading network – somewhere that David Bates describes as a “crucible of opportunity”.

“There would have been a huge amount of turmoil and upheaval across England during the final decades of the 11th century – and many people won’t have liked it,” says Bates. “In Norwich, this seems to have translated into resentment, probably hostility, but interestingly no outright resistance. In other areas, the story was, of course, different.”

Social change

One such place was York, where hostility to the Norman takeover erupted into armed rebellion. William’s response was swift, leading to the infamous campaign now known as the Harrying of the North. Across entire swathes of northern England, homes were torched, crops ruined and men, women and children were put to death in a campaign of destruction that David Bates describes as “exceptionally brutal – even by medieval standards”.

Yet for all the savagery and bloodshed of the years immediately after 1066, the Norman conquest isn’t just a story of pain, subjugation and resentment. It is also one of human resilience.

“From the beginning, conquered and conquerors would have been learning to live side by side – and many of them would have prospered from the arrangement,” says David Bates. “There are few better examples of this than Norwich, which was soon embarking on a period of prosperity and conspicuous consumption not yet seen in its history – and making some of its residents rich in the process.”

Even the vast building projects to erect the city’s castle and cathedral brought opportunity as well as upheaval, operating as huge job creation schemes for Norwich’s residents.

And it’s instructive, says David Bates, to think – when you gaze out across the city from the great keep’s battlements – that your 12th-century predecessors would have seen parish churches dedicated to Breton, Scandinavian and northern English saints. “Yes, the Norman conquest of England was a story of power and domination. But it’s also one of migration, multiculturalism and the mixing of peoples – phenomena that are at the heart of English identity.”

Five more places to explore


The White Tower, London

Where William asserted his authority

The White Tower was William I’s ultimate power statement. Begun on the edge of the largest city in his new kingdom, it was built to awe Londoners and to demonstrate authority. The stone keep was probably completed by 1100 – it remains the centrepiece of the Tower of London, Britain’s most popular tourist attraction.


Winchester Cathedral

Where Norman architecture hit its zenith

Few Norman buildings can match Winchester Cathedral in terms of scale and beauty. In many ways, the building is typical of the Norman conquest: the old Anglo-Saxon minster was reduced to rubble and in its place, completed in 1093, appeared a building boasting the longest nave in Europe. But multiculturalism is present again – a major inspiration was the burial church of the Salian emperors, the cathedral of Speyer in Germany.


The Bayeux Tapestry

Where William’s victory is uniquely relived

The Bayeux Tapestry brings arguably the most celebrated battle in English history to glorious – and sometimes gory – life via nearly 70 metres of embroidered cloth. Despite its name, this depiction of Duke William’s victory at Hastings was made in England in the 1070s, commissioned by William’s half-brother, Odo, but reflecting English influences.


Chepstow Castle

Where England met Wales

Work on the site began a matter of months after the battle of Hastings – under the Conqueror’s close friend William fitz Osbern – a testament to how the Normans immediately began to demonstrate their presence and authority.


Dunfermline Abbey

Where Norman style is evident

Founded by Edgar Ætheling’s sister St Margaret, the wife of King Malcolm (Mael Coluim) III, and developed by their son King David I, this magnificent building shows the architectural influence of the Norman conquest beyond the English kingdom’s borders.


Words by Spencer Mizen. The historical advisor was Professor David Bates, historian and author of The Normans and Empire (OUP, 2013)


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