From the British Isles to Italy and Spain: how the Normans reshaped Europe

Besides invading England, the Normans also headed south and east. As Judith Green reveals, they won success in southern Italy and Sicily, had territorial ambitions in Turkey, and played a prominent role in the crusades

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Bayeux Tapestry 1667: William the Conqueror's Norman cavalry setting out to meet Harold II's English forces, Battle of Hastings, 14 October 1066. Textile Linen (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Normans stride across the pages of 11th- and 12th-century European history as larger-than-life figures, like the ones so vividly depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Whether in the British Isles, southern Italy and Sicily, Spain, or on the Crusades, the Normans strutted their stuff.

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Their own historians celebrated their military exploits under charismatic leaders such as William the Conqueror, Robert Guiscard, Bohemond, and Roger II, first king of Sicily. Later historians too have been inclined to accept their significance, not only in the military and political spheres but also in the worlds of government, scholarship, and in the medieval church.

How then are we to explain the impact of relatively small numbers of knights from northwestern France on European history? Should their activities in different theatres be seen as part of a single, essentially Norman, enterprise? Do they confirm the impression that the movers and shakers in the middle ages were usually men: where were the women in the Norman world?

How are we to explain the impact of relatively small numbers of knights from northwestern France on European history?

The first question may be addressed by thinking about timing and context. In the early 11th century it can be argued that both England and Italy presented tempting targets for armed aggression, for different reasons. England, ruled by a wealthy king, succumbed to Danish rule in 1016 after decades of attack. The Norman dukes were not disinterested onlookers: sometimes they allied with the Danes, sometimes with King Æthelred, who had married Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I. Harthacnut, the last Danish king of England, died without an heir and so did his successor, Edward the Confessor.

Invasion of England

During Edward’s reign the young duke of the Normans, William, had fought his way to maturity establishing a network of kin and allies, and was looking to extend his power beyond Normandy. The death of Edward without an heir, the lack of a clear line of succession in England, the fact that William was a kinsman of King Edward (and may have had some kind of pledge over the succession from him) provided him with justification to gather a force, which invaded in 1066. This included not just his core supporters from Normandy but also Bretons and Flemings who saw the chance for glory and riches.

The resulting army, possibly as many as 8,000, was led by the duke himself and aimed at the throne. Even allowing for luck, William was outstandingly successful and relatively quickly was able to establish his followers in southern England and the midlands. The north was a tougher nut to crack, but over time the Normans penetrated the whole of the region south of the Solway and Tweed.

The situation in Italy presented different challenges, but here too was the possibility of wealth. In southern Italy, Lombard princes competed with Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors and the pope, while Sicily was under Arab rule. There were contacts with northern Europe. Visitors included pilgrims to the famous shrine of St Michael at Monte Gargano in Apulia or on their way to Jerusalem, and it was pilgrims, according to one tradition about the arrival of the Normans, who first took up arms for a rebel leader against the Byzantine emperor.

Then different groups began to trickle south, fighting for those who would employ them. They were soldiers of fortune, men from the middling or lower ranks of the aristocracy who had been trained as warriors but for whatever reason, political disfavour or too many brothers to provide for, had taken the road south. In 1030 one of them, Rainulf, had been given Aversa, a newly founded town north of Naples, and his nephew Richard, who came from the neighbourhood of Dieppe, established a principality centred on Capua.

The most famous of the newcomers came from a village near Coutances in the west of Normandy, Hauteville-la-Guichard. These were the sons of Tancred de Hauteville. Tancred had married twice, and had no fewer than twelve sons, of whom several made their way to Italy. Two of the sons of the second marriage, Robert Guiscard, ‘the wily one’ and Roger (later Roger I of Sicily), achieved spectacular success. By dint of force and persuasion they began to extend their rule over Apulia and Calabria.

Pope Leo IX grew so alarmed at the threat that he gathered a coalition including forces of the Holy Roman emperor, Henry III. It went into battle against the Normans at Civitate in 1053. It was defeated and the pope was captured. From that time, although relations between papacy and Normans were sometimes fractious, both benefitted from their resulting alliance: the popes with support for extending their authority, and the Normans in the legitimisation of conquest in southern Italy and then Sicily.

In both areas, England and Italy, the Normans proved the capability of their forces on the battlefield, and both at Civitate and at Hastings used heavy armed cavalry – knights. They also used castles in the process of extending their power. In the British Isles these took a variety of forms but at their simplest, earth and timber motte and bailey castles, they could be thrown up relatively quickly. At their grandest they were large and built in stone.

The Norman leaders were not prepared to restrict their territorial ambitions. In England William the Conqueror inherited claims to an imperial rule over the Welsh and Scots, later extended to Ireland. His followers showed little respect for the borders between English and Welsh territories, extending their rule in south Wales, along the valleys, and in the north.

In Scotland, William Rufus had the chance to intervene in support of the sons of Malcolm III and Queen Margaret, and then under David I Normans were granted large estates in Scotland. Later in the 12th century a Norman based in Wales, Richard FitzGilbert, married Aoife, daughter of the king of Leinster, and so entered a new theatre of military intervention.

Norman influence in Europe

They reshaped political geography and were a driving force in the crusades

1 London

It was already much the most important English city in the late 10th century when it became the headquarters of King Æthelred (‘the unready’), whose kingdom faced repeated attacks by large and well organised expeditions from Denmark. These eventually succeeded in taking both the city and the kingdom. In 1066 the city did not immediately surrender to the Normans, but then decided to come to terms.

The Normans added to the Roman walls by constructing castles, of which the largest and most famous was the White Tower (Tower of London), built to impress. The city continued to grow as a centre of trade and commerce. The Norman kings based themselves outside the walls at Westminster, where a large palace was built near the abbey church, and where the court of the exchequer and the bench of justices came to be based in the 12th century.

2 Rouen

The city and surrounding territory was granted to Rollo in 911. He and his Vikings had been attacking in France, and the king of the west Franks was trying to ensure this group would become allies, instead of enemies. Rouen became the capital of Normandy, prospering as a place where Vikings could trade. It was held by Norman and Angevin kings of England until 1204, when it surrendered to King Philip Augustus of France.

3 Hauteville-la-Guichard

This small village, not far from Coutances, still proudly remembers its place in history as the ancestral home of the Hauteville family. From here the children of Tancred de Hauteville, a lord of modest standing with no fewer than twelve sons from two marriages, set out to make their fortunes in Italy.

4 Tarragona

In focusing on the main theatres of Norman action in the British Isles, Italy, and the Crusades, it is easy to forget just how widely Normans travelled to search for success in war. They took up arms for the Byzantine emperors, who were facing massive difficulties in Asia Minor, and they also went to Spain to fight the Muslims. One was a man named Robert Bordet, who took the city of Tarragona and held it between 1129 and 1146. While he went back to Normandy to recruit manpower, his wife Sibyl, “as brave as she was beautiful”, occupied the battlements, a reminder that on occasion Norman women did go to war. 

5 Civitate

The battle of Civitate, which took place near Foggia in 1053, was as decisive in the story of the Normans in Italy as Hastings was for the conquest of England. Pope Leo IX’s coalition of German forces and Lombard princes was defeated by the Normans, including Richard Drengot count of Aversa, Humphrey of Hauteville and his brother Robert Guiscard. During the battle the pope stayed in the city of Civitella, but was captured afterwards. It was a turning point in the formation of the kingdom of south Italy and Sicily. 

6 Hastings

The 1066 battle was unusual: it was very long and was decisive, delivering the kingdom to William. Most battles in the period were brief, as one side was either outnumbered or outclassed, but Hastings lasted from early morning until evening, when the English, having lost their leaders, King Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwin, finally accepted defeat. It took place not at Hastings but inland at Battle. The general location is well known as William ordered an abbey to be built with its high altar on the site where King Harold fell. The battle was marvellously described on the Bayeux tapestry as well as in narratives and poetry.

King Harold, having learned of the landing of the Normans in Sussex, hurried south from his victory at Stamford Bridge east of York, and decided to take the risk of a battle. Had he won it was unlikely that the Normans would have been able to hold out in England, as the winter was approaching. He put up a stalwart defence, and for a long time the English line held out. In the event it was the Normans’ use of archers rather than their knights which proved decisive in fatally wounding the king. Afterwards, although there were attempts to rally around Edgar, the ‘Ætheling’, with the fall of Harold and his brothers, the heart had gone out of the resistance. William was crowned king just weeks after the battle.

7 Jerusalem

To medieval people Jerusalem was a sacred city, and on maps is shown as centre of the world. Formerly part of the eastern Byzantine empire, by the late 11th century it was under Muslim rule. Byzantine emperors made appeals to popes for assistance and Pope Urban II, moved by stories of ill treatment of Christian pilgrims, preached the first crusade at Clermont in 1095. Those who took the cross, he said, would be pardoned their sins. Many, whether through fear of damnation, hope of gain, or solidarity with friends and neighbours, hurried to enlist. Among the leaders was Robert, who had succeeded his father William the Conqueror as Duke of the Normans and who brought with him a sizeable contingent, mainly from the duchy rather than from England.

In southern Italy Bohemond of Taranto took the cross in dramatic fashion by tearing a cloak into strips, using two to make a cross for himself and handing out the rest to his followers. The crusaders travelled to the Holy Land via

Constantinople and, while Bohemond stayed at Antioch, Duke Robert went on to Jerusalem. The emotions of the crusaders when finally in sight of their goal are vividly described. What happened when they rampaged through the city, massacring thousands, was another matter. Nevertheless, they had achieved their aims and in this the Normans played a notable part.

Byzantine adventures

In Italy the experiences of Robert Guiscard and his brothers had brought them up against the Byzantine empire which, by the later 11th century, was also coming under increasing pressure from the east. By the 1080s Robert was looking across the Adriatic to the Byzantine territory. He launched two naval expeditions, the first against Dyrrhachium (modern Durrës in Albania). He died during the second expedition, in 1085.

At a similar time, the Byzantine emperor, as a Christian, appealed to Rome for assistance against the Turks. In 1095 Pope Urban II preached the need for a crusade, a call which was answered by two groups of Normans, the first led by Robert II, Duke of Normandy, and the second by Bohemond of Taranto, a son of Robert Guiscard. The motives of the two leaders have often been contrasted. Duke Robert joined his kinsmen and neighbours in northern France on what many thought of as a perilous but pious pilgrimage. Bohemond was an opportunist who was already on the lookout for territorial gains at the expense of the emperor, Alexius Comnenus. In fact most crusaders joined for a mixture of motives, secular and religious.

Robert proved to be an excellent warrior, staying with the main crusading force all the way to Jerusalem and attacking opposing armies head-on. Bohemond was a leading figure at the siege of Antioch (now Antakya in southern Turkey), but he then refused to hand the great fortress over to the emperor on the grounds that Alexius had broken his promises. While Robert returned to Normandy, to defeat and lifelong imprisonment at his brother’s hands, Bohemond went on to establish a principality centred on Antioch.

He was not the only crusader to create an independent lordship: Baldwin of Boulogne established the principality of Edessa in Turkey. Nor was Bohemond’s subsequent career one of unalloyed success, for he was captured, and freed (it was said) by a Muslim princess. He evidently possessed great charisma, for when he returned to France in 1106, he married a daughter of the king of France, and we are told that many sought him as godfather for their sons, and that his name became common in France as a result.

So how far were all these exploits the work of Normans? The chroniclers who wrote about them constructed a concept of Norman identity which could be adapted to suit different circumstances. They were seen as a people, the inhabitants of Normandy, descendants of a Viking leader, Rollo, and his band. In practice, of course, the newcomers were outnumbered by the native Franks. Then in Italy, while the leaders were Normans, they remained few in number.

There were more Normans in the army of William the Conqueror, but again there was no mass migration from Normandy in the 11th or 12th centuries. The question of the strength of identity between Normans settled outside the duchy and Normandy has been much debated in recent years. Some writers were obviously much more aware of a wider Norman diaspora than others. The early 12th-century chronicler Orderic Vitalis writing in Normandy, for instance, was particularly well informed about the

Normans in Italy as well as in Normandy and England. On the other hand, those who wrote about the first crusade tended to describe the crusaders simply as Franks, without distinguishing the Normans.

Norman identity

So should these activities in different theatres be seen as part of a single, essentially Norman, enterprise? The question of identity depends on time and place: the description ‘Norman invasion of Ireland’ is still sometimes used of the late 12th-century intervention, though contemporaries tended to call the invaders ‘the English’. The 12th-century rulers of Sicily were of Norman extraction, but the population was mixed. Latin, Greek, and Arabic were all in use.

King Roger II in particular was both able and cosmopolitan in outlook, and the royal court and its glittering culture drew elements from every quarter. The architecture of the cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, and the palaces in and around Palermo – the work of craftsmen skilled in both Byzantine and Arab techniques – speak volumes about wealth and status, as they were intended to do.

A question I posed at the start of this article was about what seems to be the strong gender bias in Norman history. Was it all about men? In fact, women were crucial to the story of the Normans, usually as wives and mothers. Marriages were a key way of making alliances. Some of the early arrivals in Italy married into Lombard families, for instance. High-status women transmitted territory as heiresses and, as the mother of young sons, could act as regents. So although this was a man’s world, high status women were no mere spectators.

Women were crucial to the story of the Normans, usually as wives and mothers

The Normans were more than brutally effective soldiers. They reshaped political geography both in Italy and in the British Isles. In Italy they created a united kingdom of South Italy and Sicily which lasted for centuries. By controlling Sicily they were able to send expeditions to north Africa, to access sub-Saharan gold, and to facilitate trade in the eastern Mediterranean and transport for the crusades. Greater contact with scholars familiar with Arabic and Greek texts enriched learning in both northern and southern Europe, to the benefit of philosophy, mathematics, and science.

In England the Norman Conquest caused a political and cultural reorientation away from the Scandinavian world. Although there remained a substantial number of families of Scandinavian descent, especially in eastern England, the ability of the Normans to resist Scandinavian expeditions meant that, in effect, the era of Viking attacks came to an end. Instead, the ruling elite in England came to be more closely linked with northern France.

The conquest of England also had profound consequences for England’s relations with her neighbours in the British Isles, most immediately for Wales, then for Scotland and Ireland. Here, as in many other parts of Europe, the Normans were, above all, catalysts for change.

This article was first published in the Normans Special Edition, created by the team behind BBC History Magazine and first published in July 2016

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Judith Green is emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Edinburgh