Even 950 years after the battle of Hastings, 1066 remains the most famous date in English history. It invariably marks the start or end of books about the Middle Ages, and even serves as a shorthand for English history as a whole, as in the parody book 1066 and All That. But why does this date enjoy such unrivalled celebrity? Hastings was certainly a decisive battle, and is imprinted firmly in our collective consciousness from an early age thanks to the miraculous survival of the Bayeux tapestry. Yet those who part with their money in exchange for a commemorative mug, tie or tea towel showing Norman knights charging into English soldiers, or Harold being struck in the eye with an arrow, may still be left wondering what all the fuss is about. It is, after all, just one medieval battle among many.
The answer is simply that Hastings, and the Norman conquest that followed, affected England more than any other event – more so than the Reformation, more even than the Civil War of the 17th century. To quote the historian George Garnett, 1066 ushered in “change of a magnitude and at a speed unparalleled in English history”.
The fundamental reason for this was the devastation of England’s old ruling class. Prior to 1066, the country had been governed by earls, ealdormen and thegns whose roots, in most cases, stretched back into the distant past. The short-lived Danish conquest of 1015 had shaken up this aristocracy and brought new families to the fore, but they remained overwhelmingly English in their ancestry and attitudes.
Initially William had planned to keep these people in place. Though some had fallen at Hastings – notably Harold’s brothers and supporters – there were still many Anglo-Saxon faces at the new king’s court during the early years of his reign, as attestations to his charters testify.
But those early years were also marked by constant English rebellion matched by violent Norman repression. Notoriously, after a large rebellion in 1069, William laid waste to the whole of northern England, causing widespread famine and a death toll in excess of 100,000: the so-called ‘Harrying of the North’. Terrible as this was, it was only a small fraction of the country’s population of around 2 million.
The damage to the aristocracy was, by contrast, much more comprehensive. By the time the data for Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, the elite had been almost completely wiped out: of the 500 or so top individuals listed in the survey as tenants of the king, only 13 had English names, and of 7,000 or so subtenants, no more than 10 per cent were natives. The aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England had been almost completely swept away – killed in battle, driven into exile or forced to exist in suppressed circumstances.
In their place was a new ruling class drawn from the continent. “England,” lamented the chronicler William of Malmesbury in the early 12th century, “has become the dwelling place of foreigners and the playground of lords of alien blood. No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop or an abbot; new faces everywhere enjoy England’s riches and gnaw at her vitals.”
The replacement of one ruling class with another had profound consequences for the country. English and Normans were quite different peoples who not only spoke different languages but also had quite different ideas about the way society should be governed. To begin with an obvious, practical example, they had different modes and methods of warfare. As the battle of Hastings demonstrated, the English elite still preferred to fight on foot, drawing their armies up to form their famous ‘shield-wall’, whereas the Norman aristocracy preferred to ride into battle after the fashion of their Frankish neighbours. More important than such cavalry tactics was the introduction of castles. These newfangled fortifications had been sprouting up across western Europe since the turn of the second millennium but, apart from a handful built during the reign of Edward the Confessor, had not been seen in England.
All that changed with the coming of the Normans. “They built castles far and wide throughout the land,” wept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1066, “oppressing the unhappy people.” At a conservative estimate, some 500 had been established in England and Wales before 1100, most of them planted in the years immediately after the invasion as the first generation of settlers dug themselves in. Think of almost any famous medieval English fortress – Windsor or Winchester, Newcastle or Norwich, Rochester, Lincoln or York – and the chances are it originated during the reign of William the Conqueror.
Though most of these sites were built to a motte-and-bailey design with wooden walls and buildings, some incorporated great stone towers. Those built by the Conqueror at London and Colchester, and by his greatest followers at places such as Richmond and Chepstow, were on a scale never before seen in Britain. Not even the Romans, whose imperial style the king and his courtiers strove to imitate, had built towers of such height in Britain.
The scale of the architectural revolution was even more apparent in the rebuilding of churches. In 1066 England had only one Romanesque church: Edward the Confessor’s abbey at Westminster. Thereafter England’s new continental prelates competed with each other in a frenzy of grandiose reconstruction, ripping down and replacing what they considered to be outmoded places of worship. By the time of William’s death in 1087, work was well advanced on nine of England’s 15 cathedrals, and by the time of the death of his son, Henry I, in 1135, all 15 had been completely rebuilt. As with the castle towers, the scale was unprecedented – the new cathedral at Winchester, begun in 1079, was larger than any other church north of the Alps – and the speed was astonishing. This was the single greatest revolution in the history of English ecclesiastical architecture.
Striking as these changes were, arguably the most profound and lasting consequences of the Conquest arose because the Normans had new attitudes towards human life itself. You will still often read that they introduced feudalism to England – a statement that most medievalists today would regard as meaningless, because the term was invented in the 19th century, and no two historians can agree on the definition. The Normans do seem to have introduced a more precisely defined form of military service, and they certainly introduced to many parts of England a more onerous form of lordship. Domesday Book shows in many counties a huge drop in the number of people classed as free. In Bedfordshire, for example, there were 700 freemen in 1066, but by 1086 their number had fallen to just 90. A famous Domesday entry for Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire notes that its English farmer, Æthelric, used to hold his land freely, but now holds it “in heaviness and misery”.
Yet, even as they were making life more miserable for those who had once been free, the Normans were dramatically improving the fortunes of those who had not. Before 1066, England had been a slave-owning and slave-trading society. To modern minds the distinction between a pre-Conquest slave and a post-Conquest serf may seem negligible, but to those who experienced both conditions there was a world of difference: to be a slave was far worse than being a servile peasant.
Slaves were essentially human chattels, with no more status than the beasts that stood in the field. They could be sold individually, separated from their families, punished by beating, and even killed by their masters if deemed to have transgressed: male slaves were stoned, females burned. And their numbers were far from negligible. Estimates vary, but at least 10 per cent of the population of England were slaves in 1066, with some scholars suggesting the figure may have been as high as 30 per cent.
In contemporary Normandy, by contrast, slavery was a thing of the past. The Normans, as the descendants of Vikings, had once been slave-traders par excellence; the Norman capital, Rouen, had once had a thriving international slave market. But references to this market dry up in the early 11th century, as does evidence for slavery in the duchy as whole. By the time William became duke in 1035, some Normans – particularly churchmen – were actively condemning it.
Accordingly, slavery declined sharply in England after the Conquest. Domesday Book shows , for example, a 25 per cent drop in slave numbers in Essex between 1066 and 1086. The chroniclers also tell us that William banned the slave trade, acting at the insistence of his long-term moral tutor, Lanfranc of Bec, who was made archbishop of Canterbury after the Conquest. The ban was clearly effective because in the following decades slavery died out. The last church council to condemn “that shameful trade by which in England people used to be sold like animals” took place in 1102, and by the early 12th century the practice of keeping and trading slaves seems to have disappeared altogether. “In this respect,” wrote the monastic author Lawrence of Durham in the 1130s, “the English found foreigners treated them better than they had treated themselves.”
This better treatment was also apparent in another respect, which can be summarised in a single word: chivalry. In the 11th century, chivalry had nothing to do with later perversions such as laying cloaks in puddles for ladies, or inviting the enemy to take the first shot. It meant, essentially, not killing your enemies once they had been defeated. The Conqueror may have been savage in his warfare but once his political opponents had surrendered he either imprisoned them or sent them into exile. Occasionally he even let them go free in return for a promise of future fidelity.
This was all foreign to England, where the norm till 1066 had been to deal with political rivals by killing them. Æthelred the Unready (c968–1016) had succeeded to the English throne after the murder of his half-brother, Edward the Martyr, and later eliminated several of his enemies in similar fashion. His successor King Cnut began his reign in 1016 with a bloody purge of the English aristocracy. Even during the reign of the saintly Edward the Confessor it was possible to get away with murder, as the Northumbrian nobles who came to spend Christmas 1064 at court discovered when they were bumped off on the queen’s orders.
All this changed after 1066. “No man dared slay another,” said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “no matter what evil he might have done him.” During the Conqueror’s reign, only one high-ranking Englishman, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria, was executed, and he was said to have been judged according to “the laws of the English”. Waltheof, beheaded outside Winchester in 1076, was the last earl to be executed in England till 1306. From 1066, executions of noblemen were exceedingly rare, and chivalry became a taboo that you broke at your peril, as the murderous King John later discovered. The Norman conquest, in other words, ushered in almost two and half centuries of chivalrous restraint.
The sudden replacement of one ruling elite with another meant that these new attitudes towards slavery and political killing were adopted rapidly in England. Beyond England’s borders, however, no such revolution had taken place, with profound consequences for the history of the British Isles. By the 1120s, English chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury were looking at their Welsh, Scottish and Irish neighbours with a fresh and critical eye, noting with distaste that they continued to slaughter and enslave each other. Such people were considered barbarians – the first time this distinction had been drawn in British politics. New attitudes imported by the Normans created for the English a sense of moral superiority over the Celtic peoples, which would help to justify and underpin their own aggressive colonial enterprises against those peoples in the centuries that followed.
None of this is intended as a defence of the Norman conquest. The price of such change was immeasurable pain for many English people. One effect much lamented at the time was the loss of artistic treasures. Anglo-Saxon craftsmen were famous for their skill in working precious metals, yet almost all the artefacts they created were either carried off as booty or melted down to pay mercenaries. And while we may admire the post-1066 Romanesque churches, those destroyed to make way for the new ones had in many cases stood for centuries. “We wretches are destroying the work of the saints,” wept Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester in 1084, as he watched the roof being ripped from his old cathedral, “thinking in our insolent pride we are improving them.”
Though the effect of the Conquest on the English language is nowadays seen as a positive, with Old English enriched by thousands of French loan words, few English people at the time can have viewed it in such benign terms. For at least two centuries before 1066, since the days of King Alfred, English had been used not only for writing religious texts but also for drawing up government documents. Shortly after the Conquest, however, the royal chancery switched to Latin, and in time so did the scriptoria of monastic houses, severing a vital link between the clergy and the laity. “Now that teaching is forsaken, and the folk are lost,” wrote an anonymous English author in the mid-12th century, “now there is another people that teaches our folk.”
Lastly, the Norman takeover entailed an enormous loss of life: the thousands who fell at Hastings were only the beginning. Some English observers, looking back several generations later, could see the positive changes brought by the Normans, but for those who lived through the experience, the Conquest felt like their world coming to an end. “Things went always from bad to worse,” sighed the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066. “When God wills may the end be good.”
Marc Morris is the author of William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin, 2016) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill, 2013)