Who were the Normans?
How did a group of rowdy itinerant Scandinavians come to dominate swathes of Europe for more than two centuries? Alex Burghart tackles the big questions about the origins of the Normans and their enduring influence
The Normans were the violent parvenu opportunists of their day: Vikings who settled in Normandy and became French before conquering England and becoming English.
From obscure Scandinavian origins, the Normans relied on their military proficiency – and ruthlessness – to dominate the institutions and elites of Europe, and assimilated cultures, ideas and whole political systems in their pursuit of glory. Norman knights and generals occupied areas from the lowlands of Scotland to the deserts of the near east, thrusting themselves into the midst of conflicts and seizing chances whenever they appeared. They also left behind some of the most remarkable ecclesiastical and military architecture of the period, which speaks volumes about both their self-importance and their piety.
Where did the Normans come from?
The people who became Normans burst on to the historical scene in the violent and tempestuous late ninth century. At that time northern Europe was beset by a ‘Great Army’ of Danes whose various divisions came close to conquering all of England, and who wreaked havoc in northern France.
At about the same time a group of ‘Northmen’ started to settle around the mouth of the river Seine. Quite where they came from is unclear. The sources for the period are poor, and later medieval historians had different views – some thought that Rollo (also known as Hrólf), their leader, had been Danish, others that he had been Norwegian. He is surrounded by various legends, including the spectacular statement found in later Icelandic sagas that he was known as ‘Hrólf the Walker’ (Ganger-Hrólf) because he was so large that no horse could carry him.
At around 911, King Charles III (‘the Simple’) of West Francia (an early forerunner of France) signed a treaty with Rollo: Charles recognised the Northmen’s right to stay in his kingdom, and they recognised his right to be king. It is likely that Charles did not have much choice, and that disturbances elsewhere in his kingdom meant he needed to buy himself a little peace. Yet what Charles managed to extract from the situation was the Normans’ acceptance that – however nominally – this was his turf, and that, if they wanted to live in peace, they would have to become Christians.
More like this
A century later, the Norman historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote that when Rollo was asked to kiss King Charles’s foot in subjection, he had refused and instead told one of his men that they should do it for him. “The man immediately grasped the king’s foot and raised it to his mouth and planted a kiss on it while he remained standing, and laid the king flat on his back,” reported Dudo. This may well be an apocryphal tale – but, even if it is, it tells us something of how the Normans saw the treaty and their place within the French king’s realm. They were vassals only in name.
Yet in accepting the king’s terms and staying in France, the Normans allowed themselves to change. As the historian Simon Coupland has put it: “The Vikings became Normans, the pagans became Christians, and thereby, in the eyes of their contemporaries, the barbarians joined civilisation.” The Normans had arrived.
Why did the Normans invade England?
It is unlikely that Charles the Simple foresaw that the Normans would still be knocking around his kingdom’s northern reaches 150 years after he had bought them off.
He almost certainly saw his treaty as a chance to buy time while he put out fires elsewhere. How wrong he was. In 1066 Rollo’s great-great-great-grandson, Duke William (‘the Bastard’), would become one of the most famous men of medieval times – indeed, one of the most famous men in all history – when he launched a successful invasion of England.
The causes of the Norman conquest are not completely easy to unpick. William was related to King Edward the Confessor (whose death precipitated the invasion), though not in the most direct way. Edward’s mother, Emma, was the daughter of Duke Richard of Normandy (‘the Fearless’), who was William’s great-grandfather. King Æthelred the Unready of England had married Emma in an attempt to prevent Normandy being used as a base for Viking armies attacking England – but although their son, Edward, had Norman blood in his veins, no English blood could be said to course through William’s.
William would argue that Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne, and that Harold Godwinson (the English contender) had done likewise while in Normandy in 1064; indeed, a famous scene in the Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold swearing on holy relics that he will uphold William’s claim. Conversely, Harold would say that Edward, on his deathbed, had given his kingdom to the Englishman.
The problem with these stories is that the English crown was not something that the incumbent could simply bestow upon his favourite. The rights to England had, since the emergence of the united kingdom in the tenth century, passed to the immediate relatives of the deceased king – excepting only when it had been conquered by Danes. Edward may have been childless, but there was a legitimate heir: Edgar the Ætheling, grandson of King Edmund II, to whom the crown should have passed. However, Edgar’s youth – he was probably about 15 – is likely to have encouraged ambitious nobles to prowl.
Regardless of what promises had been made, William saw his opportunity to progress from being duke of a mere promontory in northern France to king of one of the wealthiest realms in northern Europe. Inspired, no doubt, by the success of King Cnut only 50 years before, he gathered a great army of nobles and mercenaries, and mounted an invasion that would ultimately have huge ramifications for world history.
What impact did the Normans have on the other parts of the British Isles?
The battle of Hastings is one of the most dramatic historical watersheds. The Anglo-Saxon regime was thoroughly defeated, a great number of its nobility killed, and its survivors displaced by the Conqueror’s machinations. Over the next century and more, the aftershocks of their victory spread far beyond England into Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Scotland was never conquered, but Norman influence was felt in profound ways. The younger sons of Anglo-Norman families found Scotland a place where their skills were appreciated. David I of Scotland (1124–53), who had spent his youth in England and had the title Earl of Huntingdon through marriage, took English experiences north with him when he became king. He created new lordships owing feudal services out of the royal demesne, which he then gave to Anglo-Normans keen to do his bidding. Their influence effected deep changes in the nature and character of Scottish politics and of government.
The Welsh and the English had endured a fractious relationship for over 600 years before the Conquest; though Wales retained its own princes and kings, they had often accepted the overlordship of English kings. In the fraught years that followed Hastings, William needed to secure his western flank and prevent the sort of incursions for which the Welsh were famous.
To do this, he established marcher lords in Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford who acted almost as petty kings, with their own courts and chanceries, and their own license to make war on the Welsh. By degrees, Norman kings and their subordinates subdued Wales, building castles, allowing their own people to settle the southern lowlands, and bringing it under the rule of the kings of England. Yet the fact that this conquest took 200 years is testament to the resistance they faced.
Norman involvement in Ireland began with these same free-agent warmakers. In 1166 Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster, was deprived of his throne and sought the help of the Anglo-Norman King Henry II. Henry was too busy to lend a hand, but Dermot eventually found support from the Earl of Pembroke, known as ‘Strongbow’. Strongbow captured Wexford, Waterford and Dublin; when Dermot died in 1171, Strongbow tried to claim the kingship for himself. Henry II, concerned by the growth of Strongbow’s power, took a huge force to Ireland, obliging the Norman warlords to hand him their conquered territories. In doing so he became the first king of England to set foot on Irish soil, and so began the English kingdom’s claims to lands and lordship in Ireland.
How did the Normans come to be involved in the Mediterranean?
The Scandinavians of the early Middle Ages were nothing if not adventurous. Their seagoing ways took them to Iceland, Greenland and North America, and their quest for gold and excitement sent them down the great rivers of western Russia to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Even after becoming Frenchified, the Normans retained something of this spirit.
In the early 11th century, Norman exiles became caught up in the knotty complexities of southern Italian politics. In the Mezzogiorno (roughly, everywhere south of Naples), the Lombards and Byzantines were doing hard battle with each other, while the Saracens, heavily divided among themselves, occupied Sicily. It was, in short, a land of bloody opportunity.
A family that did very well in this political climate was that of Tancred de Hauteville (980–1041), a minor Norman lord whose estates were too modest to support the needs of his 12 sons. Several of his progeny achieved success in the south, notably Robert Guiscard (‘the Wily’) who became Duke of Apulia, Calabria and finally, through conquest, of Sicily. The Byzantine princess and historian Anna Comnena remembered him as having “an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind… He was a man of immense stature… ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire.”
Guiscard’s escapades, impressive though there were, paled next to those of the great endeavours of the First Crusade, in which the Normans were leading lights. Robert Curthose, William the Conqueror’s eldest son, is said to have been offered (but declined) the crown of Jerusalem after its capture. Arnulf de Chocques, a former chaplain to the Norman duke, found himself responsible for rebuilding the structures of the Christian church in the Holy Land. Chronicles repeatedly stress the importance of the Norman contribution; the First Crusade clearly had a Norman backbone.
Perhaps the greatest of all images of Norman ascendancy, however, came with the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionheart – king of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine, Nantes and Brittany – occupied Sicily, conquered Cyprus and, as leader of the crusade, parleyed with Saladin. The scion of a petty duchy in northern France had become the negotiating equal of the great Sultan of Syria and Egypt.
What was the Normans’ legacy?
We still live with the legacy of the Conquest – most notably in how we speak. The merger of Old English and Norman French into Middle and Modern English is an ongoing reminder of how two cultures were, in the decades that followed the Conquest, married together. The distinction between the lordly language of the castle and the earthy language of the field can be heard in the difference between ‘pork’ and ‘pig’, ‘mutton’ and ‘sheep’, ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ – the former all derived from Old French, the latter Old English.
Yet perhaps the most obvious visual legacy the Normans left has been their architecture. Their particular brand of Romanesque, with its solid yet graceful semicircular arches and arcades, is found not only in Normandy but also throughout England – thanks to the Normans’ comprehensive post-Conquest programme of church rebuilding – and also in their territories in the Mediterranean.
Wherever they settled, the Normans gifted their architecture to posterity – and so it is that one can still see something of their achievements and ambitions in buildings as widely separated as the great cathedral of Durham, the abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen, the basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari, and Cefalù Cathedral in Sicily. “Look on my works, ye mighty,” they seem to say, “and despair”.
Alex Burghart is a historian specialising in the Anglo-Saxon period, and one of the authors of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, a database of all known people from the period
This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's 'The Story of the Normans' special edition in 2016