The Normans: a timeline
From 911 when the duchy of Normandy is believed to have been founded by Viking settlers, to 1204 when King John lost Normandy to the French, Marc Morris traces the story of the Normans. Find out every date you need to know in our Norman timeline, including the turmoil that followed the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066 and the bloody wars between Stephen and Matilda in the 1100s…
According to later writer Dudo of Saint-Quentin, in this year the king of the Franks, Charles the Simple, grants land around the city of Rouen to Rollo, or Rolf, leader of the Vikings who have settled the region: the duchy of Normandy is founded. In return Rollo undertakes to protect the area and to receive baptism, taking the Christian name Robert.
Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, marries Æthelred (‘the Unready’), king of England. Their son, the future Edward the Confessor, flees to Normandy 14 years later when England is conquered by King Cnut, and remains there for the next quarter of a century. This dynastic link is later used as one of the justifications for the Norman conquest.
A group of Norman pilgrims en route to Jerusalem are ‘invited’ to help liberate southern Italy from Byzantine (Greek) control. Norman knights have already been operating as mercenaries here since the turn of the first millennium, selling their military services to rival Lombard, Greek and Muslim rulers.
Having ruled Normandy for eight years, Duke Robert I falls ill on his return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and dies at Nicaea. By prior agreement, Robert is succeeded by his illegitimate son William, the future Conqueror of England, then aged just seven or eight. A decade of violence follows as Norman nobles fight each other for control of the young duke and his duchy.
Duke William visits England. His rule in Normandy now established, and newly married to Matilda of Flanders, William crosses the Channel to speak with his second cousin, King Edward the Confessor of England. The subject of their conference is unknown, but later chroniclers assert that at this time Edward promises William the English succession.
Pope Nicholas II invests the Norman Robert Guiscard with the dukedoms of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. The popes had opposed the ambitions of the Normans in Italy, but defeat in battle at Civitate in southern Italy in 1053 had caused them to reconsider. In 1060 Robert and his brother Roger embark on the conquest of Sicily, and Roger subsequently rules the island as its great count.
Edward the Confessor dies on 5 January, and the throne is immediately taken by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in England, with strong popular backing. Harold defeats his Norwegian namesake at Stamford Bridge in September. But on 14 October William’s Norman forces defeat Harold’s army at Hastings. William is crowned as England’s king on Christmas Day.
The initial years of William’s reign in England are marked by almost constant English rebellion, matched by violent Norman repression. In autumn 1069 a fresh English revolt is triggered by a Danish invasion. William responds by laying waste to the country north of the Humber, destroying crops and cattle in a campaign that becomes known as the Harrying of the North, leading to widespread famine and death.
Worried by the threat of Danish invasion, at Christmas 1085 William decides to survey his kingdom – partly to assess its wealth, and partly to settle arguments about landownership created by 20 years of conquest. The results, later redacted and compiled as Domesday Book, are probably brought to him in August 1086 at Old Sarum (near Salisbury), where all landowners swear an oath to him.
William retaliates against a French invasion of Normandy. While attacking Mantes he is taken ill or injured – possibly damaging his intestines on the pommel of his saddle – and retires to Rouen, where he dies on 9 September. Taken to Caen for burial, his body proves too fat for its stone sarcophagus, and bursts when monks try to force it in. His eldest surviving son, Robert Curthose, becomes duke of Normandy, while England passes to his second son, William Rufus.
Following a call to arms by Pope Urban II in 1095, many Normans set out towards the Holy Land on the First Crusade, determined to recover Jerusalem. Among them are Robert Curthose, who mortgages Normandy to his younger brother, William Rufus, and William the Conqueror’s notorious half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux. Odo dies en route and is buried in Palermo, but Robert goes on to win victories in Palestine and is present when Jerusalem falls.
Having succeeded his father in 1087 and defeated Robert Curthose’s attempts to unseat him, the rule of William II (‘Rufus’, depicted below) seems secure. But on 2 August 1100, while hunting in the New Forest with some of his barons, William is struck by a stray arrow and killed. His body is carted to Winchester for burial, and the English throne passes to his younger brother, Henry, who is crowned in Westminster Abbey just three days later.
Roger I of Sicily dies. By the end of his long rule, Count Roger has gained control over the whole of Sicily – the central Muslim town of Enna submitted in 1087, and the last emirs in the southeast surrendered in 1091. He is briefly succeeded by his eldest son, Simon, but the new count dies in 1105 and is succeeded by his younger brother, Roger II.
On 25 November Henry I sets out across the Channel from Normandy to England. One of the vessels in his fleet, the White Ship, strikes a rock soon after its departure, with the loss of all but one of its passengers. One of the drowned is the king’s only legitimate son, William Ætheling. Henry responds by fixing the succession on his daughter, Matilda, and marrying her to Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou.
Roger II is crowned king of Sicily, having pushed for royal status in order to assert his authority over the barons of southern Italy. A disputed papal succession in 1130 has provided an opportunity and, in return for support against a papal rival, Pope Anacletus II confers the kingship on Roger in September. He is crowned in Palermo Cathedral on Christmas Day.
Henry I dies in Normandy on 1 December, reportedly after ignoring doctor’s orders and eating his favourite dish: lampreys. His body is shipped back to England for burial at the abbey he founded in Reading. Many of his barons reject the rule of his daughter, Matilda, instead backing his nephew, Stephen, who is crowned as England’s new king on 22 December.
King Stephen, the last Norman king of England, dies. His death ends the vicious civil war between him and his cousin Matilda that lasted for most of his reign. As a result of the Treaty of Wallingford, which Stephen was pressured to sign in 1153, he is succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry of Anjou, who takes the throne as Henry II.
King William II of Sicily begins the construction of the great church at Monreale (‘Mount Royal’), nine miles from his capital at Palermo. The building is a fusion of Byzantine, Latin and Muslim architectural styles, and is decorated throughout with gold mosaics, including the earliest depiction of Thomas Becket, martyred in 1170.
Norman rule on Sicily ends. Tancred of Lecce, son of Roger III, Duke of Apulia, seizes the throne on William’s death in 1189; on his death in 1194 he is succeeded by his young son, William III. Eight months later, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, husband of Roger II’s daughter Constance, invades Sicily and is crowned in Palermo on Christmas Day. The following day, Constance gives birth to their son, the future Frederick II.
King John loses Normandy to the French. The youngest son of Henry II, John had succeeded to England, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine after the death of his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, in 1199. But in just five years he lost almost all of his continental lands to his rival King Philip Augustus of France – the end of England’s link with Normandy.
Marc Morris is a historian who specialises in the Middle Ages. You can follow him on Twitter @Longshanks1307
This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's The Story of the Normans bookazine