It is not possible to fully realize the significance of the Normans in the history of the world. Most of the world no doubt knows about the Battle of Hastings and the conquer of the Saxons. The mere use of the name Normans troubles the English less, I think, than if they were called Frenchmen. Yet one must remember that in England at least until the latter half of the Hundred Years War (1336 -1453) it was French that was spoken and not English.
While it is true that the Angles, Jutes and Saxons created England it was the Normans who laid the foundations of what was to become the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The fact that a descendant of William the Conqueror is the current Queen Elizabeth II speaks volumes. However less well grasped in this country is the fact that the Italian, and Sicilian Norman dynasties survived at least until the Italian Unification. In addition the Normans were instrumental in the Crusades in the Holy Land and the formation of the Principalities of Edessa, Antioch and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The title of the King of Jerusalem is currently held by Louis-Alphonse, who as King of France will be called Louis XX.
These Gens Normannorum the Norman people have and continue to have a certain cultural identity which has become a hallmark of their Normanness. Although it has became the fashion in the world to identify a people with their country, the Normans have fierté raciale away of doing things which is entirely Norman in character.
In 10th century France the similarity between Norman and Viking was so close as to be indistinguishable. The Viking habitual blending and merging with the local population, in customs, language and religion, began to move them from their Vikingness and replace it with this Normanness.
The region of France which we now call Normandy is not a creation of the Normans. It comprises the ancient church province of Rouen. The area was originally populated by Gallo-Romans, Germanic tribes and Franks. About 480 this area came under the domain of Clovis (from whom the name Louis derives), and remained under French control at least nominally until 911. It was in this year that Rollo, a leader of Scandinavian settlers along the Seine River demanded that his occupation be recognized by Charles III. The occupation was agreed to most likely in light of the acceptance by the Scandinavians of the Catholic Faith and as a defense against further viking encroachment. Rollo also agreed to give military aid to the French king. The fiefdom of Normandy was created for the Viking leader now also known as Robert of Normandy.
By 623 Rollo had acquired control of all the Scandinavian settlers in the Rouen province. He turned Rouen into a prosperous city which traded with Scandinavia, and with those places in northern England control such as York(1). The descendants of Rollo and his followers adopted the local Gallo-Romantic language and intermarried with the area’s previous inhabitants and became the Normans – a Norman French-speaking mixture of Scandinavians, Hiberno-Norse, Orcadians, Anglo-Danish, and indigenous Franks and Gauls.
William, Duke of Normandy.
Rollo died in 931. From his wife Poppa he had William called Longsword, who married Sprota, from whom issued Richard I. Longsword died in 996. and was succeeded by Richard I called The Fearless. Richard married Gunnor, by whom issued, Richard II, called the good. Richard II married Judith of Rennes. Their issue was Richard also called "the Good" who died in 1029, passing the Duchy to his brother Robert I. A third son was born who became a monk. Robert I was called the Magnificent. Robert had an illegitimate affair with Harleve (or Harlette, guess what name derives from that) the daughter of a tanner. From this liason, William, soon to be called the Conqueror was born. In his youth he was called Duke of Normandy but most often William the Bastard. (le Batard)
Upon accession to Duke at age 8 William through his guardians began a series of allegiances and wars in order to stabilize his control over Normandy. The borders of Normandy pushed back those of Brittany. At age 15 William was knighted. One story concerns the city of Alençon. During the 10th century, Alençon was a buffer state between Normandy and the Maine regions. In 1047, William laid siege to the town. The citizens sought to insult William by hanging animal skins from the walls in reference to his ancestry as the illegitimate son of Duke Robert and a tanner's daughter. On capturing the town, William had the citizens' hands cut off in revenge. By the time William turned 19 he was successfully dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. With the assistance of Henry I, King of France, William finally secured control of Normandy by defeating rebel Norman barons at Caen in the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047, obtaining the Truce of God, which was backed by the Roman Catholic Church.
William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 at Eu in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This marriage was strictly against the wishes of the Church due to a question of consanguinity, as Matilda and William were distant cousins. Their marriage is said to have been made out of love and not for political reasons. He was 24 and he was 22. Matilda faithfully presented William with 4 sons and 6 daughters. In repentance for going against the church they donated 2 churches, St Stephens from him and Sainte Trinité.
Williams domain was invaded twice by Henry I, because Henry felt William had become too powerful. Both invasions were repulsed weakening the prestige and power of the French King. Later in 1062 William invaded and took control of Maine to the north of Normandy.
A matter of Succession
Edward King of England, remembered as The Confessor died in January 1066. In accordance with Saxon custom and Edwards will, the Witenagemot had Harold Godwinson crowned King. The English throne was still contested by William who had a claim through his distant aunt Emma. William claimed Edward had promised the throne to William while Edward was in exile in Normandy during the Danish occupation of England. It was William who knighted Harold after he rescued him from the Count of Ponthieu. Together they defeated Conan II Count of Brittany. On this occasion William had Harold swear allegiance to him over the bones of a saint. At the conclusion of the dubbing Harold was shown the bones. This particular incident was instrumental in getting the Popes permission to invade England, and the excommunication of Harold. This spectacular feat of propaganda placed Harold under edict and excommunicated anyone, soldiers included, who aided him.
Prior to leaving France William gathered together his own knights, and their retainers, those of his ally from Maine, Flanders, Brettanie and numbers of "Freelances'. These Freelances were knights who owed fealty to no Lord, and sold there serves at battle to battle. They gathered at Caen on the coast of Normandy. Some knights came from as far away as Italy moved by the promise of lands and titles. William had assembled a fleet of about 700 ships(2). While there, William had constructed, wooden castles, which could be taken down and rebuilt elsewhere. William then waited for the winds to shift.
In September 1066, William set sail for Saxon England was delayed for a time but finally landed in England at Bulverhythe, unopposed. He was two miles from Senlac hill upon which the battle was to be fought. Meanwhile Harold who had moved to the north to repulse a danish threat from another Harold, Hardraga. On 25 September 1066 the Saxon Thegns destroyed the Danish army at Stamford Bridge near the Danish city of York. Turning south Harold hurriedly marched his army to meet the threat of William at Hastings. After a short rest he arrived at Hastings on 12 October 1066.
Hastings and the end of Saxon England
The start of the Norman Conquest of England was the battle of Hastings in Sussex. The story may be quickly told, but first something about the opposing armies, the Norman army numbered upwards of 8500. it was composed of about 2000 cavalry, knights with lances, 4500 heavy infantry, somewhat armored carrying spears and battle axes, and 2000 light infantry consisting of archers, crossbowmen and slingers. The usual Norman method of fighting at this stage was to use the light infantry to weaken the opposition with arrows followed by and advance by the heavy infantry. When gaps were opened in the opposing lines they would attack with the mounted knights, on large Norman horses, charging knee to knee to carry home an attack, crushing the enemy as much by the use of lances as with the weight of the horse. Armored knights were the tanks of the middle ages.
Significant to the Normans they incorporated a weapon that had been unseen in warfare, but which had such an impact that cavalry thereafter used it. This weapon was the stirrup. Until it was invented by the Normans the army might ride on horses to a battle (such as the Saxons here at Hastings) but they fought on foot. The stirrup provided the knight a platform on which to stand, control the horse, (his hands would be busy with his lozenge shaped shield and his lance) and thrust with his lance. The knight was covered from head to knee with chain mail. Chain mail was made from thousands of links of loops entwined together. It was mostly impervious to sword and arrow. It allowed the knight freedom of movement and it weighed about 50 lbs. Upon his head he wore a conical helmet, with a piece of steel covering his nose called a nasal. This was the real power of the Normans.
On the other side the Saxon Fyrd, as the army was called, consisted of thegns, who were basically dressed the same as their Norman counterparts, the biggest noticeable difference would appear to be the lack of mounted knights and the use of a more Viking shield, being round. The favored tactic of this Saxon Fyrd was the "shield wall", an almost impenetrable wall formed by interlocking the shields of the front ranks together. It was the most effective defense against the Norman archers.
The 14th of October was a Saturday. The Normans arrived on the sight of the battle and formed below the Senlec hill and the Saxon position. Both armies were approximately the same size. The Norman army deployed in the typical Norman fashion. The Franco-Flemmish formed on the right, the Normans in the center, and the Breton's to the left. The archers and crossbowmen stood in front of the army.
An apocryphal story described the beginning of the battle. It seems William had a minstrel, a knight named Ivo Taillefer. At the onset of the battle Ivo requested and received permission to strike the first blow. Ivo rode towards the Saxon line, singing the Song of Roland. It is said he attacked straight into the Saxons killing two or three before being killed himself.(3)
Selac Hill was chosen by the Saxons after a race of sorts. Both sides realized the importance of the high ground. The Saxons won the high ground and had all around visibility. The Saxon shield wall could extend all around the the Saxon defenses where improved by having interior lines, where a flagging side could be reinforced quickly with out having to expose themselves to the Normans before assuming their place.
The attack began in earnest. The Normans attacked as soon as they formed for battle, hurling arrows upon the Saxon ferd, most however had little effect because of the shield wall. Thinking that the Saxons had been weaken William attack with his infantry. Many of the Norman infantry were killed in the charge up the hill, as the fyrd threw javelins, stones and anything they could find. Thus weakened, the Normans reached the sheild wall and close, hand-to-hand combat occured. The "dead had bearly a place to fall" wrote a conicler of the engagement.
William was then told that the shield wall stood. He decided to attack with his cavalry. The horses surprised at the sight of the shields simply refused to crash into them. The Norman cavalry, who were trained to fight knee to knee were compelled to attack one at a time and throw their javelins at the Saxon defenders. After about an hour the Bretons were obliged to break and fell away. The Norman and Flemish troops fearing they would have their flank turned also broke of action and fled down the hill.
Seeing the Normans retreat the Saxons broke their shield wall and pursued, among them were the brothers of Harold. In was during this attack that William's horse was killed and he fell. Fearing the death of their leader many Normans panicked and were prepared to fly. It a scene which is reminiscent of the Maid at the Tourelles, William mounted another horse and raising his helmet to show his face. by this act he rallied his men to renew the fight.(4)
Rallying the Normans began a counter attack upon the fyrd, driving them headlong back to the top of the hill. Many of the Saxon number lay dead now in the field before them. Many of the dead were the more highly disciplined Saxon huscarls, and the shield wall began to falter. William realized this and devised a new strategy. He commanded the archers to fire over the shields into the rear of the opposite side of defenses, because the direct shooting onto the shield wall produced no effect. Arrows fell into the clusters of the Saxon's who were huddled behind the shield wall. It is said that this was the moment that Harold was shot in the eye and was killed. This particular bit of information has been believed for almost a thousand years, because it was thus shown on the Bayeux Tapestry(5)
The Normans pressed home their advantage, the fighting which was hand to hand in the brutal medieval way, could only end with the destruction of Harold's army. The fyrd now fled the battlefield, the Huscarls loyal to Harold surrounded his body and were killed to the last man. William had the bodies cleared from the field, and pitched his tent and had a celebratory dinner.
(1)York or Jorvik. The Vikings captured the city in 866, renaming it Jórvík, the capital of a wider kingdom of the same name covering much of Northern England. Around the year 1000, the city became known as York.
(2)By comaparison the fleet that assaulted Normandy on 6 June 1944 numbered 6939 ships of all types.
(3)An early account of this feat is found in the (in The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio) says that an English champion came from the ranks, and Taillefer quickly slew him, taking his head as a trophy to William.
(4)Their are many historians who believe that Williams men purposely feigned retreat in order to get the Saxons to break ranks. The feigned retreat was a favorite tactic used by the Normans in the wars to expand Normandy. It worked well there.
(5)Was Harold hit in the eye, by an arrow? The only evidence we have about Harold's death comes from the Bayeux Tapestry, however, we will probably never know how he died, what we do know is his illegitemate wife Ealdgyth Swanneschals looked for his body among the dead at Senlac hill and identified him by "marks" known only to her, (lovebites).
To hear the pre-Norman Saxon tongue here...
To hear the Norman tongue recite a line from the Song of Roland, go here...
Life in Viking Jorvik, may be found here...
For the Dudo of St. Quentin's Gesta Normannorum go here...