Friday, 10 January 2020

What did the Normans do for us?


Mark Hagger
Reader in Medieval History

For more of the author’s work,
see his most recent monograph
The following paper comprises the text of a talk given during the Four Nations History Festival, held at Bangor on Friday and Saturday, 25–26 October 2019. The text remains more or less as it was when the paper was delivered—as will be all too obvious to the reader. 
Before we get going on the question of what the Normans did for us, I need to say a few words about who the Normans were and whom I have taken the ‘us’ of the question to be.
The Normans were not a single people, but rather a recently concocted mix. The Normans were in part the Christianized descendants of the Vikings who had been settled at Rouen around 911 by King Charles the Simple, in part the Scandinavian settlers who had made their home in the north west of what would become Normandy during the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in part the indigenous Franks and Bretons who had come under the sway of the Norman dukes and their supporters. In other words, although we speak and write about ‘the Normans’ they did not all have a common origin. Instead, they simply all lived within the territory that recognized the rule of the Norman duke. Indeed, Normandy itself only appears from about 1020, and had yet to achieve its final form by the time the Normans conquered England. That would only occur round about 1120 under Henry I, third of the Norman kings and ruler of Normandy from 1106.[1]

As Normandy was still under construction during the eleventh and early-twelfth centuries, you can imagine that the Normans had become very good at a variety of techniques used to encourage people to think of themselves as Normans now. Those techniques included the use of force, as well as the gentler arts of persuasion and the winning of hearts and minds through gifts and patronage. And if we think of Normandy’s place within France as a whole, then we see just one duchy in a sea of practically autonomous principalities. Until well into the twelfth century, the French king presided over little more than the Ile de France, with his base at Paris, and competed for authority with the counts of Anjou, Blois, Brittany, Champagne, and Toulouse, and the dukes of Aquitaine, Burgundy, and Normandy, who also competed with each other.[2] In the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, then, the politics of France was arguably closer to the politics of Wales than to that of England. These circumstances must have helped the Normans as they attempted to establish their rule in England and Wales.
I should also point out that the Normans ruled only to 1154, at which point the Angevins (also known as the Plantagenets) came along, so I am limiting myself to the period between 1066 and 1154.
In one scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the People’s Front of Judaea are planning their attack on the Roman occupying power when Reg, their leader, asks a rhetorical question: what have the Romans ever done for us? To which comes the response, from various members of his group: aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths, and security.
For the venerable Bede, writing in Northumbria c. 731, the answer was not dissimilar: ‘The Romans had occupied the country south of the earthwork which, as I have said, Severus built across the island, as cities, forts, bridges, and paved roads bear witness to this day’.[3]
So, for an eighth-century monk as well as a group of twentieth-century comedians, it was the physical remains of Rome, and the physical improvements the Romans brought to the infrastructure, that were the things that were remembered. They were what they did for us.
And before I forget, ‘us’ this afternoon means England and Wales and the peoples who lived there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Where relevant it also means those of us who live here today.
Oddly enough, even without these leads to follow, the physical remains of the Norman conquest will loom large in what follows this afternoon, not only because their buildings and urban foundations constitute the most readily accessible features of their impact in England and Wales, but also because what they produced was new in a British context.
It was new because of differences in culture. Because the Normans did some things differently to the native societies that they would conquer or influence. It was not because of some technological superiority, however, because unlike the Romans in Gaul or Britannia, or the Germans in Livonia during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Normans’ technology was not significantly more advanced than that found in the lands they conquered or settled.[4]
Indeed, it is also the case that the Normans did not set out fundamentally to change what they found in England or Wales—with the exception of the reform of their ecclesiastical life, for that was something that was clearly on the agenda. Instead, the Normans have a reputation for assimilating the structures they found, as they did in the case of the organs of English government. Thus William the Conqueror took over the writing office that Edward the Confessor had used, as well as some of the personnel who staffed it.[5] He continued to mint coins on the English model, which were produced by English moneyers—although he did increase the silver content and thus created sterling—and he used a seal that was almost certainly created for him by an English goldsmith.[6] Moreover, William the Conqueror and his successors announced time and again that they would govern England according to the law of King Edward.[7] Of course, they intended to benefit from their conquests by obtaining the property left vacant by those who had been killed at Hastings and in the ensuing English revolts, but in England at least even that takeover looked back to the possessions and rights of the men whose land they had taken, who were described as their antecessores time and again in the folios of Domesday Book.[8] Continuity not change was the order of the day.

Castles

Bearing all of this in mind, what did the Normans do for us? What was their positive impact on contemporaries and, where their legacy survives, what was their impact on the present day? Now, I do not have time to look at everything, so I am going to pick and choose the things that I think are most interesting or important or just a bit unusual—and you will just have to put up with it! And that means I am going to pass over the introduction of a whole new set of Christian names into Britain—all those Williams and Roberts and Richards—as well as any wider impact on the English and Welsh languages.[9] I am not going to look at Norman involvement in any ending of slavery that is supposed to have taken place in this period.[10] I am not even going to make the best of the present political climate to discuss how the Normans orientated Britain towards Europe and away from Scandinavia.
Instead, in the first instance at least, I am going to follow Bede and Monty Python and think about the Normans’ physical impact on the landscape and society.
And to begin with that means thinking about their castles, which they began to erect as soon as they landed in England with the intention of securing their hold on the land and to prevent any English revolts from getting anywhere. The twelfth-century chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, writing at Saint-Evroult in Normandy but originally from (near) Shrewsbury, tells us that:
To meet the danger the king rode to all the remote parts of his kingdom and fortified strategic sites against enemy attacks. For the fortifications called castles by the Normans were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so the English-in spite of their courage and love of fighting- could put up only a weak resistance to their enemies. The king built a castle at Warwick and gave it into the keeping of Henry, son of Roger of Beaumont… Next the king built Nottingham castle and entrusted it to William Peverel.[11]
Orderic goes on to add that William constructed further castles at Lincoln, Huntingdon, and Cambridge during the same campaign. Domesday Book records only fifty castles in England and the marches in 1086, but it is likely that there were actually more than 500 scattered across the country by the time William I died on 9 September 1087.[12]
Fig. 1: Holwell castle, in Parracombe in Devon.
A typical motte-and-bailey castle
.
Castles would also become a feature of the Welsh landscape following the advent of the Normans in Wales from around 1070. Their shells remain at, for example, Chepstow, Cardiff, Carmarthen, Kidwelly, Cardigan, Caldicot, and Caernarfon – although it is very rare for any of the existing masonry to date back to the period before 1154, because most of the early castles comprised earthworks (Fig. 1) with timber palisades and towers. Chepstow, of course, provides a notable and famous exception to this rule.[13] Nonetheless, while the timber was replaced during the course of the twelfth century, the earthworks were often retained, so we can still see the shape of the earlier Norman castle much later in the day. Indeed, even at Caernarfon, where the Norman fortification is gone, we can still trace it. The present castle was built around the earlier Norman one, which is reflected in the shape and height of the upper ward. You can see how the ground rises inside the castle to the Queen’s gate which would once, presumably, have been level with the top of the old Norman motte.[14]


When castles first appeared in Wales they were as alien as they were in England. And as in England, they provided an aggressive defence of Norman settlement. As the author of the Life of Gruffydd ap Cynan put it, ‘[Hugh of Chester] had castles and other garrisons built in various places in the French custom so that he might control the land’.[15]
For those living in their shadow in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, castles might have seemed malign. The author of the ‘E’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted that they ‘were a sore burden to the poor’.[16] They held down the country for its new Norman masters and made rebellion impossible. In some cases at least their construction made use of forced labour. In some cases their construction was marked by the demolition of tens of houses, changing the shape of a number of towns in the process.[17]
And yet, for those who reconciled or allied themselves with the Norman regime, and who preferred peace to revolt, it might be that these castles offered security for those who lived nearby. Their very presence deterred attacks. And should an attack occur, the garrisons based inside their walls could help to protect the surrounding populations and their possessions. It has to be remembered, that while there were rebellions against Norman rule, the rebels failed on each occasion to carry the day. The English did not rise to a man when presented with the opportunity to do so.[18] If we are going to attempt to get a balanced view of the impact of Norman castles, then, we need to remember those who did not heed the call and who might well have seen castles as benevolent rather than malevolent. At risk of anachronism, we might want to think about them as comparable to the heavily fortified police stations of Northern Ireland during the Troubles and into the 1990s—oppressive for some, certainly, but security for others.
It is also the case that in both England and Wales the native aristocracies began to build castles of their own, both to defend their lands and also to emphasize their status. The author of the Brut y Tywysogion made this very point when, in his annal for 1150, he recorded that ‘Cadell ap Gruffydd repaired the castle of Carmarthen for the strength and splendour of his kingdom’.[19] Cadell was by no means the first Welsh prince to act like this. So far as we know that honour goes to Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, who had built a fort for himself near Welshpool by 1111. Uchdryd ab Edwin had built one at Cymer by 1116. And by the middle of the twelfth century, round about the time that Cadell was rebuilding Carmarthen, references to Welsh castles in Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth are common. In time, castle building even came to figure in the law texts as an obligation due from all subjects.[20]
And what about the impact of these Norman castles on us today? You will all have your own views, but there is no doubt that they remain one of the most obvious memorials to our past, and as such they act as a spur to our historical curiosity and our common memory. To some extent, despite the sanitized presentation of what has survived, they also allow us to connect directly with that past. They can tell us about aristocratic life in the Middle Ages. They reveal to us its art and its technology and its society. They enrich the landscape. And they enrich the economy, too, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.[21]

Churches and the Church

The other most obvious physical impact of the Normans is found in their ecclesiastical buildings, but they also had a constructive impact more generally in the realm of Church reform—of which the buildings were themselves one expression.
The first Norman-style church in England was actually built just before the conquest. From around the mid-1040s, King Edward the Confessor began the reconstruction of Westminster abbey. The work was just about completed by January 1066, when the king died. The Bayeux Tapestry reveals the weathercock being added as the king was buried there.[22]
Fig. 2: The abbey church at Jumièges.
The model for Edward’s Westminster abbey
.
The church that Edward built is generally reckoned to have been based on the contemporary church at Jumièges in Normandy (Fig. 2), which was itself dedicated in 1067.[23] Certainly, the design was considered innovative in England. Writing in the 1120s, William of Malmesbury opined that Edward was ‘using for the first time in England the style which almost everyone now tries to rival at great expense’.[24]
In his Life of Wulfstan of Worcester, William of Malmesbury went on to suggest that this last of the Anglo-Saxon bishops had ‘an aversion to elaboration of architecture … in churches. He regarded such things as having more to do with human pomp and circumstance than with the will and grace of God’. He wept, we are told, when he began work on a new cathedral at Worcester, lamenting tearfully that they were destroying the work of a saint, for St Oswald had constructed the church he was pulling down back in the tenth century. But don’t feel too sorry for the elderly bishop, for Malmesbury is trying to suggest that the Normans had treated the English past with disdain but cannot keep it up. He goes on a few lines later to note that Wulfstan went on to complete this new church, ‘and you will not find it easy to think of an ornament that was not bought to decorate it, so wonderful was it in its details, so unique in every respect. To ensure that its splendour lacked nothing, he put 72 marks of silver into the shrine in which he placed the remains of his predecessor, the blessed Oswald, and those of many holy men’.[25] Wulfstan, it seems, was not so averse to the new Romanesque architecture after all.
He was not alone, and it may well be that the hagiographer Goscelin of Saint-Bertin expressed a widely held view when he noted that, ‘he destroys well who builds something better. A useless little man who takes up little ground, I greatly dislike little buildings and, though devoid of resources, propose splendid things. And so, if given the means, I would not allow buildings, although much esteemed, to stand unless they were, according to my idea, glorious, magnificent, most lofty, most spacious, filled with light and most beautiful’.[26] Orderic Vitalis, too, writing in the 1130s, noted how the building had increased during the reign of Henry I as a result of the peace that flourished during that king’s reign:
Visible evidence of the truth of my statement is provided by the new basilicas and numerous churches recently founded in villages all over England, and the extensive cloisters of monks which, along with other monastic buildings, have been built in King Henry’s time. Every religious order, enjoying peace and prosperity, endeavoured to show its zeal in internal life and external organization, in everything pertaining to the worship of omnipotent God. So the faithful in their fervent devotion ventured to pull down churches and domestic buildings and replace them with new and better ones. The ancient churches which had been built under Edgar and Edward and other Christian kings were pulled down to be replaced by others more worthy through size or loftiness or beauty of workmanship to praise the Creator.[27]
Orderic’s words indicate that these new churches were not necessarily seen to mark a break with the past in any negative sense. Furthermore, continental influences had already begun to appear in England at least in the years before the conquest. Malmesbury suggests that Edward the Confessor had started the trend, as noted above, but less than ten years after the work at Westminster abbey had been started, around 1050, Abbot Wulfric of St Augustine’s Canterbury commenced work on a rotunda to link his abbey’s two churches which was based on a model he had found at Dijon.[28] Indeed the fact that the style was itself international, rather than exclusively linked with the conquering Normans, might also have allowed the new building to be seen in an ecclesiastical context rather than a political one.
Further, these buildings did not all go up in the years immediately after the Conquest, and even when they were started they took years to complete. At Winchester, for example, the Lotharingian bishop, Walkelin, who was appointed in 1070, began work on a new and vast cathedral in 1079 (thirteen years after the Conquest), much of which still stands. To build his new cathedral, he had to demolish the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster, which had been constructed over the years from 660, preserving the earlier building as new extensions were added. But the Old Minster was not demolished the moment that Walkelin began his work. It remained in use until the choir of the new cathedral was complete in 1093. Only then, almost thirty years after the Conquest, did the Old Minster have to make way for the nave of the new church.[29]
Moreover, right next door to the Old Minster was the New Minster, founded either by Alfred the Great or his son Edward the Elder. That church remained right where it was until 1110, when the abbey was removed to a site outside the city walls by Henry I and renamed Hyde Abbey.[30]
Fig. 3: The nave of the Anglo- Saxon church
at Brixworth (Northamptonshire)
.
Continuity was even easier to see outside the cities and towns. If you had happened to have lived in Brixworth in Northamptonshire or Deerhurst in Gloucestershire or Corhampton in Hampshire, the new Romanesque rebuilding would not have been at all apparent. There, the Anglo-Saxon buildings continued in use through-out the period beyond 1154, and still survive to this day. In Cheam in Surrey, the Anglo-Saxon church seems to have remained in use until the thirteenth century, when it was turned into the chancel of a new church and remodelled accordingly. In contrast, in some places rebuilding was itself almost a demonstration of continuity. The church of St Peter at Barton-upon-Humber in Lincolnshire, for example, went up in the late-tenth/early-eleventh century, was remodel-led and extended by either the Saxons or Normans in the mid-eleventh century, and received a longer nave in the early or mid-twelfth century. The fabric then: gained a porch and a chapel in the mid- twelfth century; a north aisle at the end of the twelfth century; a south aisle at the beginning of the thirteenth century; a wider south aisle in the later thirteenth century; and an entirely remodelled nave during the early fourteenth century.[31]
George Garnett has been quite negative about the earlier Norman buildings, remarking that they could be badly made.[32] But what that tells us is that the masons were inexperienced when work began on these vast projects. They had to learn. And they did. But naturally they made mistakes on the way. Vaults and towers might collapse. But when they were rebuilt, usually within a few years, they stayed up. The lessons had been learned. And already before the end of the eleventh century, English masons had got so good at what they were doing that they invented the rib vault, at Durham, which was a development that would catch on across England and the continent in the years that followed.[33]
Although we are currently less well-informed about Wales, where a project to identify and catalogue Romanesque architecture and sculpture is ongoing,[34] it is clear that rebuilding, or simply building, in the new Romanesque style happened across the country. Leading from the front were the Norman-imposed bishops of the Welsh dioceses, who, like their English counterparts, perhaps wanted to demonstrate their successful reform of the Church by building in the international style of the day. Thus the cathedral at Llandaff was rebuilt by Bishop Urban (1107-34), and while only the chancel arch of his church remains, it is enough to provide an idea of the richness of his building. St Davids and Bangor cathedrals, too, were rebuilt at the beginning of the twelfth century, but all of that work has almost entirely disappeared under later reconstruction.[35]
Just as active as the bishops were the monks of the newly-created monasteries who were of course building from scratch. The monks of Cormeilles received a dependency at Chepstow before 1071, and the west front of their church still stands. Ewenny Priory was founded from Gloucester in 1141, and is generally reckoned to constitute some of the finest Romanesque work surviving in the country. The Cistercians were established at Margam in 1147, and again the west front and nave of their church still stands.[36]
Fig. 4: The south transept of Gruffydd ap Cynan’s
church at Penmon (Angelsey)
.
But Norman or French churchmen were not alone in the building effort. It is clear that the Welsh princes and Welsh abbots joined in off their own bat, even if they were probably influenced by the work going on in the marcher lordships. And they did so because they had the same need to display their wealth and their commitment to church reform in architecture and sculpture. Thus Gruffydd ap Cynan built the Romanesque churches at Penmon (Fig. 4) and Aberffraw, which are virtually indistinguishable from contemporary work in the marcher lordships and England. Indeed, Gruffydd is reported as having built ‘large churches next to his palaces which he built and established beautifully, sparing no expense. What then was the result? Gwynedd with churches and dedications like the heavens with stars’.[37] Further south, Abbot Morfran of the clas church at Twywn is credited with its Romanesque rebuilding c. 1140.[38]
Although I have mentioned it in passing already, it is worth emphasizing that all of this rebuilding was part of a wider reform of ecclesiastical life in both England Wales. The Nor-mans were sniffy about the English Church and even more so about the Welsh Church, which looked very different from what they were used to on the continent.[39] They trumpeted their reforms, not least because of the political capital such actions provided.
We can see the link in this passage from William of Malmesbury’s History of the Kings of the English, where he also suggests that Church reform was perhaps the best thing that the Normans had done for England: ‘The standard of religion, dead everywhere in England, has been raised by their arrival. You may see everywhere churches in villages, monasteries in towns and cities, rising in a new style of architecture, and with new devotion our country flourishes, so that every rich man thinks a day wasted if he does not make it remarkable with some great stroke of generosity’.[40]
Norman church reform was not just manifested in the buildings themselves but also where they were. The Romanesque cathedrals at Old Sarum, Lincoln, Exeter, Chichester, and Norwich, which survive in whole or part, are where they are because the Normans moved those cathedrals from their old semi-rural locations to these new urban ones—something which was entirely in line with canon law which required bishoprics to be established in major towns.[41] In the cases of Ely and Carlisle, the Normans went so far as to create new dioceses altogether. Ely was carved out of the vast diocese of Lincoln in 1109, and Carlisle was established in 1133.[42]
While the Normans did not create new dioceses in Wales, although it is possible that they revived St Asaph in 1143, they did securely establish their boundaries. Indeed, one other thing that the Normans almost did for us was to establish an independent Welsh Church, free from the oversight of Canterbury, with its own archbishop at St Davids. This was the plan formulated by the Norman appointee Bernard who was bishop of St Davids between 1115 and 1148.[43] Bernard died before he could bring his plan to fruition, but had he succeeded then the effect on Welsh history could have been immense.
There is one final benefit that followed from all of this Norman church reform that needs to be mentioned. While there were a number of abbeys in England before the Conquest which continued and prospered, Norman lords liked to establish their own foundations for the benefit of their own souls, and sometimes as a way of linking their new lands to their patrimonies in Normandy. Thus in England we have, among others, Tewkesbury, Shrewsbury, Chester, Bruton, Lewes, Thetford, Tutbury, and Castle Acre; and in Wales Chepstow, Brecon, Margam, Neath, Ewenny, Llanthony, and so on. Those abbeys gained and maintained property, and preserved their records in a way that lay lords did not—at least until the fourteenth century. Thus the archives of these houses, as well as any narratives produced there, provide us with much of the information we have about the events, both local and national, that took place during the Norman period.
Without the Normans, then, we might have ended up much more ignorant about the history of these countries, and all the more culturally impoverished as a result.

Towns and trade

So far, the experiences of England and Wales have looked similar. But that is not the case if we turn our attention to towns and trade. And that is because the starting points in each country are so different.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, England had a lot of towns, scattered across the country, serving as markets and centres for the manufacture of leather goods, metalwork, and so on.[44] Trade with the continent and with Ireland had also developed before the advent of the Normans. There was a wharf at London that had been granted to the men of Rouen by Edward the Confessor, and Normandy itself was known for its blubber-fish and wine by around the year 1000.[45] Domesday Book for Cheshire reveals that the king had the right to the first pick of any marten skins that arrived from Ireland, and there was a trade in slaves in both directions across the Irish Sea that had been going on since before the Conquest.[46] The impact of the Normans on English cities and trade was therefore quite limited. They founded more of them, and developed what they found, but the process was one of evolution and development rather than noteworthy impact.
In Wales, in contrast, there had not been any towns worth the name before the advent of the Normans. There was pre-urban development in Wales, as at Bangor and Caernarfon amongst others, but Rees Davies held that it was only with the advent of the Normans that the history of most Welsh boroughs might be said to begin: ‘it is impossible, from present evidence, to identify any community in eleventh-century Wales which might, by the most generous definition, qualify as a town’.[47]
The foundation of towns began almost as soon as the Normans began to push into Wales. Chepstow had been founded by 1075. Cardiff was established in or around 1081.[48] The small borough at Rhuddlan had been founded by 1086. Domesday Book tells us that there were eighteen burgesses (who would have been the heads of households, thus there were eighteen families), a church and a mint, and something of the town (which now lies under the school playing fields, in front of the motte and bailey castle) has been uncovered by excavations.[49] Brecon was there by the 1090s. By 1135, there were other boroughs at Monmouth, Abergavenny, Kidwelly, Carmarthen, and Pembroke. All of these were overshadowed by a castle, which gave them the protection they needed from a volatile, if not consistently hostile, Welsh population.
That they did need protection was, in part at least, because these towns were vehicles of conquest, for it seems that the burgesses were overwhelmingly Normans, French, and English rather than Welsh. That does not mean, however, that the entire population of any or every town was exclusively English. For example, Domesday Book records that there were three Welshmen (plus their families) in the castelry of Caerleon, whatever that might mean, ‘living by Welsh Law’.[50] Recent work has concluded that there were Welshmen and women living in the towns of Gwent at least from an early stage, as well as in Brecon.[51] There is also evidence that Welshmen attended the local assemblies and/or shire courts in Carmarthen and Pembroke—which, as they were English in origin, were presumably held within those towns—during Henry I’s reign, for the addresses of a select handful of Henry I’s acts make it clear that they were published to Welsh speakers in those assemblies.[52]
Moreover, and regardless of whether Welsh families lived within the towns or not, these centres provided a market for buying and selling and they did provide economic development for all. If the People’s Front of Glamorgan found themselves debating how to oust the Normans in the years after 1080, then the foundation of Cardiff would definitely have been among the things that the Normans had done for us.

History and Myth

The years immediately following the Norman conquest of England and the first advent of the Normans into Wales were undoubtedly troubled and possibly traumatic for many of the English and Welsh who endured them. Even around 1100, the Norman aristocracy remained disdainful of English ancestry. When King Henry I married Edith-Matilda of Scotland, to take advantage of her kinship with the house of Cerdic (i.e. the line of English kings), in November 1100, at least one Norman aristocrat nicknamed them Godric and Godgifu.[53] That was not intended as a compliment, but rather as an ethnic slur. The English monk, Eadmer of Canterbury, tells us that Robert, count of Meulan (d. 1118), who was effectively Henry I’s right-hand man, ‘had no love for the English and could not bear that any of them should be preferred to any position of dignity in the church’.[54]
Malmesbury provides another and more famous example of the ethnic friction that could be found in England post-Conquest. He does so when recounting a vision received by Edward the Confessor, which would itself become something of a barometer of the state of the union of the English and the Normans. In that vision, Edward was told that, as a result of the sins of the English, his kingdom would be handed over to the devil for a year and a day after his death and that demons would roam over it during that time:
It will be … as though a green tree were cut through the middle of the trunk and the part cut off carried away for the space of three furlongs. When without support of any kind that part is again joined to its trunk and begins to bloom and produce fruit, as the sap of each runs together with the affection there was of old between them, then and not until then will it be possible to hope for an end to such evils. The truth of this prophecy, he continues, we now experience, now that England has become a dwelling-place for foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood. No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop or an abbot. New faces everywhere enjoy England’s riches and gnaw her vitals, nor is there any hope of ending this miserable state of affairs.[55]
Thirty years later, however, things had changed, not least as a result of the marriage of Henry I and Edith-Matilda mentioned just now. In 1147, a certain Aelred, who was entirely English by birth, became abbot of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. In 1163 he wrote The Life of St Edward, King and Confessor, in which he discussed the prophecy in the light of Henry II’s succession to the throne.
This tree represents the kingdom of the English, adorned with glory, fruitful with riches and pleasures ... The tree was cut from its trunk when the kingdom was divided from the royal line and transferred to other seed. It was set apart by the space of three furlongs because during the period of three kings there was no link from the new to the ancient seed, for Harold succeeded Edward, and William Harold, and William the younger his father William.
The tree returned to its root when the glorious King Henry, to whom the whole honour of the kingdom had been passed married Matilda, a great, great, niece of Edward, compelled by no necessity and urged by no hope of gain but by a natural attachment, joining the seed of Norman and English kings, and through the marriage act making one from two. The tree flowered when Empress Matilda came forth from the seed of both. And then it bore fruit when our Henry rose from it like the morning star, joining the two peoples like a cornerstone. Now certainly England has a king from English stock, and it has bishops and abbots from the same race.[56]
By then, at least, the two peoples could be thought to have merged. But there are signs that the process had begun some decades earlier.
We can see it in the resurgence of interest in English history that emerges from the 1120s, whereby William of Malmesbury, John of Worcester, and Henry of Huntingdon sought to educate the Norman-French aristocracy about the past they now shared with the English. The result was a great flowering in the writing of English history which would probably not have occurred without conquest and assimilation, and without which our knowledge of our past would be much the poorer. We can also perhaps see this same assimilation in the creation of the Eadwine Psalter at Canterbury (now at Trinity College, Cambridge) in around 1155, in which the Latin text of the Psalms is glossed (i.e. interpreted and explained) in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English— all three languages happily co-existing on the same page.[57]
In contrast, assimilation with the Welsh did not happen. While there was intermarriage between the peoples, the match between Gerald of Windsor and Nest, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr being only the most famous example, the intermittent hostility that was itself the result of the Normans’ incomplete conquest, ensured that the two peoples would not grow together.
It has been suggested that the tension between the Normans and the Welsh resulted in a characterization of the Welsh as barbarians.[58] I am not entirely sure that this is actually the case. It seems to me that Anglo-Norman historians such as Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury used the word ‘barbarian’ only in relation to religion. Those who were either not Christian or whose Christianity did not reflect the continental reforming ideals of the time, were barbarians.[59] Indeed, Gruffydd ap Cynan himself used the word apparently in the same context—upbraiding the archbishop of Canterbury at the same time. He asked the archbishop of Canterbury to provide a bishop of Bangor, ‘for we have lacked a pastor for many years’ and ‘since she is a daughter of your mother church’, and goes on to warn that, ‘if now … we do not have a bishop from your part, we shall seek one from the island of Ireland or from some other barbarous region’.[60]
Nonetheless, if Robert of Meulan despised the English, there is at least a chance that other Norman lords, and perhaps English ones too, had disparaging things to say about the Welsh and their culture. Some, on the other side of that divide, might have thought that such criticisms needed to be addressed.
At the same time, Norman aggression and settlement probably had a similar effect on the Welsh that the Viking conquests had on Alfred the Great’s England or that the barbarian invasions had on the Roman Empire. There was a drop in national morale. A sense of impending and catastrophic disaster. We can read it now and again in the annals of the Brut y Tywysogion, which went so far as to portray Henry I’s campaign of 1114 as an attempt to exterminate the Britons.[61]
Either or both of these factors could have spurred Geoffrey of Monmouth—a Breton to judge by his names—to write his History of the Kings of Britain. His work made it clear that the Welsh had once been as civilized and as powerful a people as the Normans and Franks, with great towns and mighty armies.[62] Although Geoffrey’s precise reasons for picking up his quill are unknown, and have to be guessed from the content of his book and the context in which he was writing, it does seem virtually certain that he was responding in some way to the political culture of his day—a culture which had been made by the Normans. And so, as a result of the law of unforeseen consequences, one last thing that the Normans did for us was give the world King Arthur and Merlin.
Fig. 5: King Arthur from the mosaic floor in
Otranto cathedral, laid down in 1163–5
(from https://sites.duke.edu/
danteslibrary/otranto-mosaic/
)
.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work quickly became a medieval bestseller. By 1155, it had been translated into Norman-French by the poet, Wace, who added some ideas of his own into the mix, including Arthur’s round table.[63] Now the stories were accessible in the vernacular and in verse, they could be more easily performed in aristocratic households across the Frankish world and, in turn, become more susceptible to further changes and additions. By 1163–5, Arthur’s fame had reached the south of Italy (Fig. 5)—under Norman rule at that time—and his portrait was embedded in the tesserae of the mosaic floor being put down in Otranto cathedral.[64] And by the 1170s, Chrétien of Troyes had got hold of the story and was adding tales of Lancelot and Perceval and his quest for the holy grail.
Arthur, then, was something that the Normans, or at least a Breton, did for western literature. And it also means that I have been able to finish this short talk with an indirect reference to another Monty Python movie.




[1] On the development of Normandy between 911 and 1144 see most recently M. Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy, 911–1144 (Woodbridge, 2017), Chs. 1–3.
[2] The best survey of French politics between 987 and 1154 is J. Dunbabin, France in the Making, 843–1180 (Oxford, 1991). The best contemporary accounts of the politics of France before 1066 include: Flodoard of Reims, The Annals of Flodoard of Reims 919–966, ed. and trans. S. Fanning and B. Bachrach (Peterborough, Ontario and Plymouth, 2004; Richer of Saint-Rémi, Histories, ed. and trans. J. Lake, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA and London, 2011); Rodulfus Glaber, Opera, ed. and trans. J. France (Oxford, 1989); and the letters produced by Fulbert of Chartres: The Letters and Poems of Fulbert of Chartres, ed. and trans. F. Behrends (Oxford, 1976).
[3] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bk. 1, Ch. 11; The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. L. Shirley-Price, revised by L. E. Latham, with the translation of the minor works, new introduction, and notes by D. H. Farmer (London, 1990), p. 57.
[4] For Livonia, see R. Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950–1350 (London, 1993), pp. 72–6.
[5] The existence of a royal writing office before 1066 has been debated, but the evidence seems to me to support the argument for its existence. See, for example, S. Keynes, ‘Regenbald the Chancellor (sic)’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 10 (1988), pp. 185–222.
[6] On coins see, most conveniently, M. Archibald, ‘Coins’, in English Romanesque Art 1066–1200, ed. G. Zarnecki, J. Holt, and T. Holland (London, 1984), pp. 320–39. On the seal see J.-F. Nieus, ‘Early aristocratic seals: an Anglo-Norman success story’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 38 (2016), 97–123; M. Hagger, William: King and Conqueror (London, 2012), pp. 69–70, 71.
[7] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. G. N. Garmonsway (London, 1972), p. 200 implies what is more clearly expressed in, for example, Regesta regum Anglo-Normannorum: the acta of William I (1066–1087), ed. D. Bates (Oxford, 1998), no. 180; English Historical Documents, ii 1042–1189, ed. and trans. D. C. Douglas & G. W. Greenaway, (London, 1953), pp. 400–402 (no. 19).
[8] For example, out of vast number of possible references, see R. Fleming, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge, 1991), pp.109–20; D. Roffe, Domesday: The Inquest and the Book (Oxford, 2000), pp. 25–8; S. Harvey, Domesday Book of Judgement (Oxford, 2014), pp. 45, 326–7.
[9] By 1172, the name William had become so popular that when Henry the Young King held his first court in Normandy it was celebrated with a feast at which only people called William were allowed to remain. Robert of Torigni tells us that when all the others had been ushered away 110 knights called William remained (Robert of Torigni, Chronique de Robert de Torigni, abbé de Mont-Saint-Michel, ed. L. Delisle, 2 vols (Rouen, 1872–73), ii. 31).
[10] William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Angolorum, ed. and trans. vol 1 (Oxford) (henceforth: Malmesbury, GR), pp. 496–9 notes that William I helped to put an end to the trade in slaves between England and Ireland (although he also suggests that Bishop of Wulfstan should get the most credit for this move), but he does not go so far as to suggest that slavery itself was abolished under the king. Indeed, Domesday Book reveals that slaves remained a feature of English society in 1086.
[11] Orderic Vitalis, Historia ecclesiastica, ed. and trans. M. Chibnall, 6 vols (Oxford, 1969–80) (henceforth ‘Orderic’), ii. 218–19.
[12] Hagger, William: King and Conqueror, p. 79.
[13] Recent work has disputed that the hall keep was built before 1071, preferring instead to date the work from William I’s campaign to St Davids in 1081 (R. Turner, C. Jones-Jenkins, and S. Priestly, ‘The Norman great tower’, in Chepstow Castle: Its History and Buildings, ed. R. Turner and A. Johnson (Little Logaston, 2006), pp. 35–42). In any event, the building dates from before William I’s death.
[14] A twelfth-century parallel might be provided by the castle at Kenilworth.
[15] Vita Griffini Filii Conani: The Medieval Life of Gruffydd ap Cynan, ed. and trans. P. Russell (Cardiff, 2005), pp. 72–3; A Medieval Prince of Wales: The Life of Gruffydd ap Cynan, trans. D. S. Evans (Llanerch, 1990), p. 70.
[16] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Garmonsway, p. 220.
[17] The destruction of houses is not always expressly linked to the construction of the castles, but the correlation between the two makes it highly likely that the castle-building was to blame. See, for example, Great Domesday Book, fos. 100r, 262v, 336v; Domesday Book: Text and Translation, ed. J. Morris, 38 vols (Chichester, 1975–86): Devonshire, C3; 1, 1–2; Cheshire, C23; Lincolnshire, C26; S2.
[18] The best narrative of the English revolts remains A. Williams, The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge, 1995). The works of Peter Rex on this subject should be avoided (at least by students), as they are both partisan and out-of-date.
[19] Brut y Tywysogion or The Chronicle of the Princes, Peniarth MS 20 Version, ed. T. Jones (Cardiff, 1955), p. 57.
[20] R. R. Davies, The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063–1415 (Oxford, 1991), p. 67.
[21] Welsh Assembly statistics are available for 2017 at https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/statistics- and-research/2019-05/visits-tourist-attractions-2017-summary.pdf <accessed 26 November 2019>.
[22] E. Fernie, ‘Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey’, in Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, ed. R. Mortimer (Woodbridge, 2009), p. 139; Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 26, printed in W. Grape, The Bayeux Tapestry (Munich, London, and New York, 1994), pp. 120–1.
[23] Fernie, ‘Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey’, pp. 141–2.
[24] Malmesbury, GR, pp. 418–19.
[25] William of Malmesbury, Saints Lives, ed. and trans. W. Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson (Oxford, 2002), pp. 122–3.
[26] Quoted in G. Garnett, The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009), p. 108.
[27] Orderic, v. 329–30.
[28] K. Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800–1200, second integrated edition (London, 1978), p. 153.
[29] F. Barlow, M. Biddle, O. von Feilitzen, and D. J. Keene, Winchester in the Early Middle Ages: An Edition and Discussion of the Winton Domesday, ed. M. Biddle (Oxford, 1976), pp. 306–12.
[30] Barlow, Biddle, von Feilitzen et al., Winchester in the Early Middle Ages, p. 313–18.
[31] See W. Rodwell, St Peter's, Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire : A Parish Church and its Community. Volume 1, History, Archaeology and Architecture (Oxford, 2007), and in particular the timeline at p. 27.
[32] Garnett, The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 103–6.
[33] See for example J. James, ‘The rib vaults of Durham cathedral’, Gesta, 22 (1983), pp. 135–45. It should be noted that some have argued (implicitly or expressly) that the rib vaults at Lessay in Normandy are earlier (see for example M. Baylé, Lessay: l’abbatiale d la Trinité’, in L’architecture normande au Moyen Age, ed. M. Baylé, 2 vols (Caen, 2001), ii. 97–100).
[34] See https://www.crsbi.ac.uk/resources/wales/ <accessed 27 November 2019>.
[35] Davies, The Age of Conquest, p. 184; D. Bateman, The History of Llandaff Cathedral, new edition (Cardiff, 1958); The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan (Mid Glamorgan, South Glamorgan, West Glamorgan), ed. J. Newman (London, 1995), pp. 239–44. At Bangor, this building is represented only by a blocked up Romanesque window in the south wall of the choir.
[36] See, The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan, ed. Newman, pp. 343–6 (Ewenny), 424–5 (Margam); L. Butler and C. Given-Wilson, Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain (London, 1979), pp. 232–3 (Ewenny).
[37] Vita Griffini Filii Conani, ed. and trans. Russell, pp. 86–7; The Life of Gruffydd ap Cynan, trans. Evans, pp. 81–2.
[38] The Buildings of Wales: Gwynedd (Anglesey, Caernarvonshire, and Merioneth), ed. R. Haslam, J. Orbach, and A. Voelcher (New Haven and London, 2009), pp. 718–19.
[39] F. Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042–1216, fourth edition (London, 1988), pp. 36, 127–8; Davies, The Age of Conquest, pp. 172–9, 181–2; D. Walker, Medieval Wales (Cambridge,1990), pp. 67–74.
[40] Malmesbury, GR, pp. 460–1.
[41] Malmesbury, GR, pp. 534–7.
[42] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, ed. and trans. M. Winterbottom, vol. 1 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 492–3 (Ely); Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. Greenway (Oxford, 1996), pp. 488–9 (Carlisle).
[43] Davies, The Age of Conquest, pp. 190–1; Walker, Medieval Wales, p. 72.
[44] For a useful survey see R. Britnell, ‘Commerce and markets’, in A Social History of England 900–1200, ed. J. Crick and E. van Houts (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 179–87.
[45] Hagger, Norman Rule, p. 48.
[46] Malmesbury, GR, pp. 496–9; Warner of Rouen, Moriuht, ed. and trans. C. J. McDonough (Ontario, 1995), pp. 76–7.
[47] Davies, The Age of Conquest, pp. 97, 164.
[48] R. A. Griffiths, ‘The boroughs of the medieval lordship of Glamorgan’, in Conquerors and Conquered in Medieval Wales (Stroud, 1994), pp. 337–39; Davies, The Age of Conquest, p. 165.
[49] Great Domesday Book, fo. 269r; Cheshire: FT2, 19; H. Quinnell and M. R. Blockley, Excavations at Rhuddlan, Clywd 1969–73: Mesolithic to Medieval (York, 1994), pp. 8–9, 14–16, 36–38, 60–65, 77–83, 164, 214–16.
[50] Great Domesday Book, fo. 185v; Herefordshire: 14, 1.
[51] T. Hopkins, ‘The towns’, in The Gwent County History. Volume 2: The Age of the Marcher Lords, c. 1070– 1536, ed. R. A. Griffiths, T. Hopkins, and R. Howell (Cardiff, 2008), pp. 134–5; A. D. Carr, Medieval Wales (Basingstoke, 1995), p. 96.
[52] T. Phillipps, Cartularium S. Johannis Bapt. de Caermarthen (Cheltenham, 1865), p. 10; Historia et cartularum monasterii Sancti Petri Gloucestriae, ed. W. H. Hart, rolls series, 3 vols (London, 1863–7), ii. 76 (no. 552); and see also L. Merlet, Cartulaire de l’abbaye de la Sainte-Trinité de Tiron, vol. 1 (Chartres, 1883), p. 42 (no. xxvi).
[53] Malmesbury, GR, pp. 716–17.
[54] Eadmer of Canterbury, Historia Nouorum, ed. M. Rule, Rolls Series (London, 1884), p. 192; Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 205.
[55] Malmesbury, GR, i. 414–17.
[56] ‘The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor’ in Aelred of Rievalux, The Historical Works, ed. M. L. Dutton and trans. J. P. Freeland (Collegeville, MN, 2008), pp. 207–9.
[57] The Eadwine Psalter: Text, Image, and Monastic Culture in Twelfth-Century Canterbury, ed. M. Gibson, T. A. Heslop, and Richard W. Pfaff (London and University Park, 1992); E. Treharne, Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020–1220 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 167–87.
[58] In particular by John Gillingham, ‘‘The context and purposes of the History of the Kings of Britain’, Anglo- Norman Studies, 13 (1991), pp. 106–9. Gillingham notes a change in the usage of the term barbarian, particularly by Orderic who was writing across the period between c. 1117 and 1141, but I am not at present convinced that this change actually occurred. That does not mean, however, that English and Normans did not look down on Welsh society and culture.
[59] Malmesbury, GR, pp. 173, 185,
[60] The Acts of Welsh Rulers, 1120–1283, ed. H. Pryce with the assistance of C. Insley (Cardiff, 2005), pp. 321–2 (no. 191).
[61] Brut y Tywysogion, p. 37 (s.a. 1114).
[62] Gillingham, ‘The context and purposes of the History of the Kings of Britain’, pp. 109–10.
[63] See, Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British. Text and Translation, trans. J. Weiss, revised edition (Exeter, 2002). The round table is found at pp. 244–7.
[64] See, for example, S. Mola, Apulia: Sights, History, Art, Folklore, trans. C. Jenkner (Bari, 1998), p. 142. There are plenty of images available on the Internet, too.

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