The Norman Conquest: 1050 – 1120

by Jo Beverley (a 1998 Write Byte)

The time around the Norman Conquest was, of course, one of social upheaval in England. The consequences of conquest were drastic, though they varied by location. For example in took years for the Normans to even begin to control the edges of their new territory, especially the north and south west. The Norman Conquest did not happen overnight, though it was close in the south east, in the areas around Winchester and London. At this time, London was not the capital of England. Administration was more strongly focused on Winchester, with Westminster (London) and York also important.

To understand the Anglo Norman period, we have to understand something of the previous decades and the English tradition. (It’s not really correct to call them Saxons. Saxony is an area of Germany, and some of the English were Anglo-Saxons, but already regarded themselves, in the central area at least, as Anglish, or English.)

First, the “English” were already a mongrel lot. The original tribes, including the Celts had already been driven back to the fringes, and the recent Viking invasions and settlements meant that large parts of east England were Danish. Normans and other Europeans had been visiting and settling. Normans had been part of the court of previous kings, especially Edward, and had helped him build castles to keep out the Welsh.

At the same time, the English nobility were often cosmopolitan. They traded around the world, and often traveled, especially to Rome. The Varangian Guard, personal guard of the Emperor in Constantinople, was largely composed of English warriors.

The English were certainly not primitive barbarians. Certainly they were not as advanced in military matters as the Normans, but in the arts they were renowned. It is now generally held that the Bayeux tapestry was English not Norman work, because the Normans weren’t skilled enough. We only have fragments of Anglo-Saxon poetry left, but it is beautiful and complex.

Their society was also beautiful and complex, and democratic. The monarch was a war-lord, elected by the upper noblemen to summon the Fyrd — the army — in time of threat, to put together coherent laws, and perhaps to deal with foreign nations. He did not own the land, but only his own inherited land. His powers and rights were circumscribed.

The country was run from the bottom up by a series of local gatherings too complex to get into here, each reporting to their “lord” such as the village headman, the sheriff, or the earl. When the Normans invaded and imposed feudalism — top-down government tied to the king’s ownership of everything — this was perhaps the hardest thing for the English to swallow. Rather as if someone invaded the United States and turned all the locally elected bodies into means of passing down edicts from on high.

In looking at the conquest, we also have to recognize that foreign kings were not unacceptable. Only 50 years before, Cnut of Denmark had become king, and had ruled without significant trouble for over 20 years. One of his successors was his son, the King of Denmark. In 1042, Edward the Confessor became king, and he was of the English bloodline, but he’d spent most of his life abroad, mostly in Normandy.

Again, there isn’t time to go through the complex events that led to the conquest, but it is important to understand that originally William of Normandy had reason to believe he would be elected king and accepted without complaint, and his intentions probably were to rule as Cnut had done, without significantly changing English laws and customs. It was his need for an army, and a need to reward that army, that led to the imposition of feudalism on England, and the massive influx of foreigners into the country.

The history of William’s reign was one of unrest and harsh suppression of it, particularly in the outlying regions where Norman control was weakest, but there are many instances of William being slow to be harsh, which indicate to me that he was always hoping for a more peaceful acceptance. I don’t think he died content with the situation in England.

The early Anglo-Norman period is an interesting one, and of course the Normans varied tremendously. Some were brutish tyrants, others much more caring of their new land. Because of the French tradition of dividing properties between sons, many large Anglo-Norman holdings split into “French” and “English” to create an English nobility and what we now regard as English culture. Many of the second generation — the children of the conquerors — regarded themselves as largely English, founders of a new nation with new allegiances. Though French was the courtly language, with English servants they were surely bilingual. It certainly didn’t take many generations for English to be the principal language at all levels. And those old English customs of government by local gathering seemed to seep up from the ground to mute feudal dominance.

In fact to me it looks as if “Englishness” grew up like kudzu to drown out the invading values, so that not many centuries down the line, the French were looking across the English Channel and saying, “But we won. What happened?” And I don’t think they ever forgave us for it!

And please don’t ever think of medieval people as all uncouth barbarians. These are the people who built and worshipped in the cathedrals, who lived in the world of illuminated manuscripts and plainchant, and who believed firmly in heaven and hell. Their ruined castles may look bleak to us, but try to remember them painted inside and out in bright colors, and hung with rich cloths.

Don’t focus on a lack of hygiene that wouldn’t have shocked our own recent ancestors, but note that they did bathe, that not bathing has never meant that people didn’t wash, and that numerous recipes to rid a house of fleas mean that they did try to rid their house of fleas!

Nor was their world simple. The average English castle, involved complex technology. In addition to all the skilled work necessary to grow crops and care for regular farm animals, they needed to manage wells, fish-weirs, hives, and rabbit warrens. In addition to maintaining the structure of the building, they made much of what they used from scratch — particularly in this early period — including cloth, leather, flooring, weapons, medicines, wheels, baskets, bowls, mattresses, nets, beer, bread, etc etc. There were few things they truly needed from outside — perhaps pins and needles, the finer weapons, spices, salt (unless they were on the coast), a little foreign wine, some precious silk, some jewelry to show off their wealth.

This establishment was under the supervision of the lord and lady, and their senior officers, and boredom was not a problem! Both males and females needed to train from infancy to take on these heavy responsibilities and their skills in the end could be what stood between the community and disaster. I find it hard to believe that any man willingly married a woman who wasn’t competent in complex household management. Though I suppose if she were a considerable heiress it would compensate, land being all.

Oh, and though they didn’t have corn (maize), tomatoes, potatoes, or turkey, they did have sugar. But it was reserved for medicinal use.

Warrior armor was chain mail, worn over some kind of quilted and/or leather garment to protect the skin. It could stop cutting blows, but not bruising or breaking ones, and a broken bone could be deadly. Most lesser people, however, had to rely on quilted or boiled leather, perhaps with some metal plates. Swords were crude and heavy, and not designed for elegant fighting. Sword and shield were generally used together. The English favored the battle-ax, which was an extremely dangerous weapon, but the Normans used more archers, which could kill from a distance. The Normans also used horses in battle — their major military advantage, but not a decisive one, when spears and axes could take down horses. The couched lance and joust are far in the future.

It was, however, a warrior age. Whether the fighting men believed in Valhalla or Heaven, there was glory and honor in fighting well and dying honorably. There was only shame in deserting a lord or killing by stealth. In fact, the word “murder” was reserved for killing in darkness or by stealth, and murder was punished severely. Killing face-to-face in anger, or as part of a feud was regarded more leniently ond generally only incurred a fine and payment of damages to those who had lost someone. Note that killing in war was not condoned by the church, and that penance was imposed for it. I have doubts as to how seriously these penances were taken at the time, but warriors who survived into their later years ofter made pilgr/wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages, or even became monks, to gain forgiveness for their violent past.

Though there were a few impressive stone castles, generally on the coast or the Welsh border, most castles of this time were more like wooden palisades. In the first urgency, castles were generally a motte – a small hill either natural or man-made with a wooden watch-tower at the top; and a bailey – an open area for living, and keeping essential stock, surrounded by a wooden wall. Depending on the likelihood of attack, the place was slowly strengthened over the next fifty years. The tower became the stone keep in which the family could live, and the walls were replaced by stone.

Even for the great, this was largely a simple age where everyone was concerned with food, clothing, and shelter, but they enjoyed what luxuries they could get, and loved bright colors. Wood or stone, their homes were brightly painted and hung with decorative cloths. For clothing, they had linen and wool, though some silk was available for the very rich. They didn’t use complicated cutting and seaming, but they could dye, weave, and embroider their loose garments, and remember that the English were famous for embroidery. They were also famous for jewelry making, and the Anglo-Saxon culture placed great importance on it. Find a book about the Sutton Hoo burial to see what they were capable of.

I can’t stress enough that this was a period during which two complex cultures met, clashed, and blended, and an understanding of the psychology, laws, and values of both is very important.


  • 1016 – Cnut becomes king of England. Divides England into four administrative districts. Wessex he ruled himself; Earl Thorkell in East Anglia; Earl Leofric in Mercia; Earl Eric in Northumbria. He binds himself to the English royal line by marrying the widow of a previous king.
  • 1027 – Cnut on pilgrimage to Rome. Negotiates tax free route for English travelers to Rome. (Doesn’t that sound modern?)
  • 1035 – William becomes Duke of Normandy at age 7
  • 1036 – After some dispute, Harold “Harefoot”, one of Cnut’s sons, becomes king.
  • 1040 – Harold dies and another son, Harthacnut, King of Denmark, become king of England. Macbeth becomes king of Scotland.
  • 1042 – Edward becomes king
  • 1043 – Lady Godiva, wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia may or may not have ridden through Coventry naked in protest against her husband’s actions. Before or after, he founded Coventry Abbey.
  • 1045 – King Edward marries Edith, daughter of Earl Godwin of Wessex.
  • 1051 – Earl Godwin raises rebellion. Edward promises England to William of Normandy.
  • 1053 – Godwin’s son, Harold, becomes Earl of Wessex.
  • 1054 – Earl of Northumbria aids Malcolm to defeat Macbeth
  • 1057 – Malcolm kills Macbeth
  • 1060 – Edward begins to build Westminster Abbey
  • 1064 – Earl Harold shipwrecked in Normandy and takes oath to William.
  • 1066 – Edward dies. Harold is chosen as king. October, Battle of Hastings. Harold killed. December, William crowned.
  • 1066 – 1071 – More or less continuous resistance and Danish invasions.
  • 1071-1078 – Many cathedrals built.
  • 1076 – Attempts to establish celibacy of clergy and marriage in church as the norm.
  • 1078 – The White Tower built. (Beginning of the Tower of London.)
  • 1082 – Bayeux tapestry completed.
  • 1086 – Domesday Book completed.
  • 1087 – William I killed in Maine, France. His oldest son, Robert, becomes Duke of Normandy. Middle son, William Rufus becomes King of England. Younger son, Henry, receives money.
  • 1087-1100 – Continuous unrest and war, often between the three brothers.
  • 1100 – William II killed by an arrow while hunting. Succeeded by Henry, who marries Matilda of the old English line.
  • 1101 – Duke Robert invades to try to claim the throne. Most English support William. Duke Robert retreats.
  • 1106 – Henry defeats Robert in Normandy, imprisons him and reunites England and Normandy.
  • 1114 – Henry I’s daughter Matilda marries the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V.
  • 1118 – Henry’s queen, Matilda, dies.
  • 1120 – Henry’s only legitimate son, William, is drowned in the wreck of the White Ship, setting the stage for the Stephen and Matilda civil war later.

If you’re trying to research this period for writing, be wary of anything that talks about “the middle ages.” Depending on definition, the middle ages can be up to 1000 years, and clearly things did not stay the same.

Be aware, too, that most sources on “the middle ages” are much more about the high middle ages from 1200 on. This earlier period is different. As I said above, castles were simple, and mostly wood. Jousts were unknown. Tourneys, if they had them, were rough group fighting, not the elaborate pageants of later. “Chivalry” and its codes was embryonic. For example, the very concept of “knight” is poorly formed as yet, and applied rather more to a common soldier on horseback that to anything grand and lordly, which is why I try to avoid it in my books, though I sometimes use it to make things clear to the modern reader.

My Books Set in the Medieval Period:

For my first medieval (Lord of My Heart), I wanted to do a book about Hereward the Wake, leader of the English resistance to William, but that didn’t really work. I also was tired of the Norman Knight/Saxon Maiden books, so I made my hero son of an English lady (daughter of Earl Leofric of Mercia) nephew and oath-bound to Hereward; and son of a Norman lord, godchild to William, feudally bound to William. Having put him in an impossible situation, I had William marry him to a Norman heiress to try to strengthen his allegiance to that side. While writing, I hope, an enjoyable love story, I tried to convey some of the complexities of the time and the tragedy of the destruction of the English culture.

I actually found the period too wrenching, and moved on to the time around Henry I’s seizure of the throne for my next three books. Dark Champion deals with the events around Duke Robert’s invasion in 1101, but it’s mostly about a side-event — a brutish rebel’s attempt to seize an heiress and the castle she now holds.

The Shattered Rose goes back to the actual time of William II’s death, and Henry’s coronation as these events complicate a marriage already in difficulties.

Lord of Midnight is about a secondary character in Dark Champion, Renald de Lisle, who is a pretty happy guy until appointed executioner to one of the rebels of 1101. Honor-bound to be king’s champion in a duel to the death in which the fate of the nation hangs in balance, it scars his soul, for it’s no contest. He is one of the best and his opponent, though a lord, is an artist not a warrior. And then he is forced to marry the dead man’s loving daughter, a young woman he wants only to cherish, but who will hate him as soon as she discovers the truth.


  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin, any of his books on Anglo-Saxon art and culture.
  • Any version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
  • (Anglo-Saxon Books, Frithgarth, Thetford Forest Park, Hockwold Cum Wilton, Norfolk IP26 4NQ put out great detailed books about the period, but I think you’ll have to write to them to get them.)
  • Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink (eg) is a great resource that will carry over into the early Norman period as well.
  • 1066: Year of the Conquest by David Howarth, Dorset Press
  • The Life & Times of WIlliam the Conqueror by Maurice Ashley, Weidenfeld and Nicholson
  • Anglo Norman Warfare Ed. Matthew Strickland, Boydell Press

Cyberspace Research:

The ‘Net is full of medieval stuff, from documents in the original language to pop-history. Most of these places link to one another:


The author’s website Jo Beverley at AAR Return to Medieval Times Return to Author-Penned Articles & Write Bytes