The End of Saxon England? Revisiting the Norman Conquest: Chapter I – The Confessor, the Conqueror & the House of Wessex, 1035-1135

The Battle of Hastings: William the Conqueror rides into battle with his knights at Hastings, as portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry. At Hastings, William’s combination of armoured knights and archers, and their better discipline, triumphed over King Harold’s axe-wielding infantry, or so the ‘story’ goes …

The Tragedy of Harold Godwinson:

The story of the Norman ‘takeover’ of England has been told very often, most vividly in one of the earliest accounts in the form of Queen Matilda’s tapestry, still kept in Bayeux, which gives it the name it is better known by. French legend maintained the tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her ladies-in-waiting. Indeed, in France, it is occasionally known as “La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde” (Tapestry of Queen Matilda). But it is now believed that Odo, William’s half-brother, commissioned the tapestry, and if so it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists (Odo’s main power base being by then in Kent); the Latin text contains hints of Anglo-Saxon; other embroideries originate from England at this time, and the vegetable dyes can be found in cloth traditionally woven there. The tapestry was originally hung around the walls of a room but is now displayed around a large central case. It is not really a tapestry but an embroidery, for which Anglo-Saxon women were well-known, since it was made by English ladies. In some ways, it reflects that dual origin: in outline it is comic-strip-cartoon propaganda for William, supporting his claim to be the legitimate King of England, but it can also be read as an epic tragedy, the story of the downfall of Harold after he broke the oath William had extracted from him. It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings (October 1066). It is thought to date to the late 11th century, within a few years of the battle.

Against this ‘backcloth’, the crisply engraved lines in Edward Freeman’s map of the Battle of Hastings of 1066 depict one of the greatest turning points in England’s history. The Norman army of Duke William lines up in a great arc below Senlac Hill, where the English warriors of King Harold Godwinson await their charge. To the victor that day the spoils would be the English crown and the chance to shape the new nation’s destiny. Freeman’s map was printed in 1869 for the third volume of his History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Its Results, some eight centuries after the battle, but there are no contemporary plans of the encounter, even if a number of chroniclers provided a reasonable account of its course soon after it was fought. In the light of the previous half-century of Scandinavian intervention in England, the Norman invasion was neither unprecedented nor unexpected. The childless Edward the Confessor, educated in Normandy and a Francophile, perhaps wished to be succeeded by his mother’s great-nephew from when the latter visited Edward’s court in 1051. However, opposition to William’s succession was formidable, especially from the House of Wessex under Earl Harold Godwinson.

A French Invasion:

The army which invaded England was in any case not exclusively Norman and neither were the new aristocrats who replaced many of the Anglo-Danish thegns and ealdormen after 1066. It included men from many parts of France including Bretons, as well as Flemings, Italians and Sicilians. It also comprised some great baronial families of medieval England, those who really did come over with the Conqueror, but who traced their ancestry to Flanders or Aquitaine, Anjou or Brittany, rather than to Normandy. Within two generations the throne had passed first to Henry I, who married into the Wessex royal line and then to Henry II, Count of Anjou and first of the Plantagenets. When we are looking for changes after 1066, we should therefore be cautious about describing anything post-Hastings as ‘Norman’ without qualification, even in terms of the transfer from one dynasty to another. This is even true when discussing the most dramatic contributions of ‘the Normans’ to the landscape, castles and Romanesque architecture. It is in fact a measure of the strength and durability of both Anglo-Saxon and Norman society that a new monarchy and new instrument of government could be imposed by an alien nation while at the same time preserving the continuity of English life. The Norman invasion of England was essentially different from those carried out by the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes before them. It was more like the Roman invasions, especially that of Claudius in AD 43, in that they established themselves through a decisive battle, followed by sudden conquest, rather than through a period of extensive raiding and piecemeal settlement. Once he had taken London and claimed the Crown, William then had to fight hard to retain his new kingdom, but by the time of his death in 1087 the English, both Dane and Saxon, had been subdued under Norman rule. Perhaps it is because of dramatic developments that followed, that the slender nature of the victory on that October day tends to be overlooked.

At Hastings, the mounted knight emerged as the dominating tactical feature of medieval warfare, despite the fact that it took over eight hours for the Normans to overcome the English defence. Harold’s force was classicly Anglo-Danish in composition, comprising the housecarls, the professional men-at-arms, a permanent royal bodyguard founded by Cnut, an élite among the soldiers of Europe and those of the Saxon fyrds who had been able to answer the king’s summons. The housecarls were a mobile force that usually rode to the site of battle before dismounting to fight on foot. Although essentially infantry, the housecarls were well-equipped to challenge the apparent superiority of the mounted knight. Their most distinctive weapon was the long-handled, double-bladed war axe which was capable of bringing down both horse and rider with a single blow. Others would be armed with javelins and swords and all were armoured with knee-length tunics of mail, the ‘hauberk’, a conical helmet with nasal bar and a circular or kite-shaped shield. Beyond fifty yards, the Danish short bow was virtually ineffective against these defences and provided the housecarls could maintain a solid formation they were a potent deterrent to cavalry. The mounted Bretons fled when faced by the housecarls at Hastings, and only weight of numbers appears to have overcome the surviving housecarls as darkness fell. That the horsemen could compete at all with the heavy infantry was due to the introduction of the stirrup to Europe in the eighth century. But to the Normans it was never axiomatic that heavy cavalry should always fight mounted. Therefore, Hastings cannot be taken as demonstrating the innate superiority either of cavalry over infantry or the pre-conquest Norman military system over the Anglo-Danish.

So this was an incontrovertible military invasion by an efficient army under a very tough leader, who had been fighting to maintain his position in his homeland and then to strengthen it as long as he had been able to hold weapons. In the years after 1066, there was a clean sweep of the upper echelons of Anglo-Danish society: the leading Anglo-Saxons were dead or in exile and both the lay aristocracy and the upper levels of the Church saw a considerable change of personnel. The Norman Conquest gives us an excellent opportunity to see exactly what a military invasion looks like on the ground, and what physical traces it might leave. However, we should also bear in mind that the historical account might not tell the whole story and that things might not be as simple as they appear at first. The impact of the Norman Conquest on Anglo-Saxon England has been the subject of conflicting arguments. For long it was held by historians that the bestowers of an entirely new form of life and government rescued Anglo-Saxon society from exhaustion and decadence. Revisionists countered by arguing that a vibrant Anglo-Saxon heritage not only survived the conquest but eventually absorbed the invader and that the achievements of the Norman settlement were due in no small measure to strong Anglo-Saxon and Danish foundations.

Who were ‘the Normans’?

To begin with, however, we need to ask, who were the Normans? It has been traditional to describe them as simply a more sophisticated type of Viking. The ducal family claimed descent from Rollo, a Viking leader who was ceded lands in northern France by Charles the Simple in 911. Rollo and his followers were Scandinavians, like those settling at the same time in eastern England, and Normandy takes its name from them, Northmannia, land of the Northmen. Yet the Scandinavian character of the later Normans is less clear. Contemporaries described William and his followers as Frenchmen. On the Bayeux Tapestry, the battle was marked as being between ‘Angli et Franci’. Examination of the institutions and place names of Normandy tends to suggest that, though certainly not negligible in some areas, the Scandinavian element in the population was not overwhelming. Eleventh-century Normandy preserved many of the institutions of Carolingian France and was in many ways simply a segment of the old empire, like the other warring principalities which had grown up as the successors of Charlemagne, fragmented their inheritance and central authority waned. During the tenth and early eleventh centuries the politics of England, Scandinavia, Scotland and the Duchy of Normandy became increasingly intertwined. The Vikings had long regarded England and the maritime provinces of France as a common theatre of war in which campaigning fleets and armies could move from Channel Coast to Channel Coast as the need arose.

Normandy differed perhaps in being better organised and militarily far stronger than some of the fragments of the Carolingian empire, especially under Duke William. He may have owed his toughness to Viking forebears, but successive dukes married the daughters of other French rulers, the King of France, the Counts of Brittany, while William was the son of a girl from Falaise, and we know next to nothing about her nationality. There is a story that even Rollo’s grandson, Duke Richard I, had to be sent away to learn Norse, which was not his first language. In Rouen, the inhabitants spoke ‘Roman’ and not Norse in the time of Duke William. Archaeological evidence for Scandinavians in Normandy is even more elusive than it is in England. A few Viking burials are known or have been deduced from finds of jewellery or weapons. Some of the swords and axes are of English manufacture, suggesting they had been acquired on campaign in Britain. There is also an earthwork, the Hague Dyke, a prehistoric monument that may have been reused by Vikings. As with ‘Danish camps’ in England, which are seldom anything of the sort, this fortification may not tell us much about Vikings at all.

The Norman Conquest of England, 1066-80:
In the summer of 1066 England faced invasion on two fronts – by the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and by William, Duke of Normandy, both of whom claimed the throne. After Hardrada’s defeat at Stamford Bridge near York, William’s victory at Hastings and Harold’s death, William proceeded to ravage the South East. The Anglo-Danish rebellions of 1068-70 were ruthlessly suppressed, especially through his ‘Harrying of the North’.

Both England and Normandy were a prime focus of Scandinavian interest throughout the eleventh century, militarily and from the point of view of migration. Viking raids were launched from Norman ports and it was the concern of successive English kings to persuade the dukes of Normandy to prevent the use of these harbours by marauding Viking fleets. Such an agreement was concluded at Rouen in March 991 and although not entirely successful it served to foster the growing relationship between England and Normandy. In 1002 Emma, the sister of Duke Richard II, married Aethelraed II of England, and when the west saxon royal family sought refuge from the Viking invasion of 1013, the couple took their sons Edward and Alfred to Normandy, to find sanctuary there. But the estrangement from the new Scandinavian imperial family ruling England was ended in 1016 when Aethelraed’s death allowed Emma to marry his usurper, Cnut. During the reign of Duke Robert I (1027-35), relations between Cnut and Normandy deteriorated and the Duke lent his support to the exiled West Saxons and the aethelings Edward and Alfred. When Cnut died, Harthacnut inherited his kingdoms, but as he ruled in Denmark, his half-brother was nominated as Regent in England, despite opposition from both Emma and Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin seized control of Alfred while he was en route to visit Emma in Winchester, then placing him at the mercy of Harold Harefoot: the Regent’s followers blinded Alfred with a savagery which caused his death. In the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript C), … no more horrible deed was done in this land since the Danes came. Alfred’s betrayal by Godwin embittered relations between the Godwinsons and Alfred’s brother, who became Edward the Confessor.

The End of Danish Rule & the Anglo-Norman Reign of Edward the Confessor:

Emma was still exiled with her husband in 1037, when Harold Harefoot became King of England. However, when he died in 1040 and was briefly succeeded by Harthacnut, Emma and Edward returned to Britain. When Harthacnut died ‘at his drink’ in 1042, the Witan invited Edward to be king. He had been educated in Normandy and admired the Normans, famed for their religious zeal as well as for their skills in warfare. Their enthusiasm for the Church is shown by the number of cathedrals, churches and monasteries they built, and their military strength by the castles they erected. The Norman abbots and bishops were among the best educated clerics of their time. Edward had spent most of his boyhood among priests, and was more fitted to be a nonk than a king. Nevertheless, Edward became king and began a largely peaceful reign which lasted for nearly twenty-five years, despite the continual threat of a Scandinavian invasion and the internecine power struggle between the earldoms of England, which had become the power bases of the rival families of Godwin of Wessex, Siward of Northumbria and Leofric of Mercia. Godwin emerged as the most powerful earl and his authority was such that his own exile in 1051-2, and Edward’s hostility, could do little to diminish it. As king, he paid little attention to affairs of state and devoted himself to prayer and worship and the concerns of the Church.

As a counterbalance to the Godwinsons, Edward attempted to increase Norman influence, giving lands to Norman lords and appointing Norman bishops. Since he remained childless, it seems certain that by 1051 he had pledged the succession to William of Normandy during the Duke’s visit to England. The following year, however, Earl Godwin and his sons, Leofwine and Harold, launched an incursion into England which Edward was powerless to resist. As a result, royal authority was undermined, the Norman connection severed, and the House of Godwin was re-established in a an apparently unassailable position. But the other Anglo-Danish earls, jealous of the Godwin family, would not make a united front against the Normans. When Godwin died in 1053, his family’s influence was maintained and even increased by his sons Harold Godwinson, Tostig, Leofwine and Gyrth. It became increasingly clear to William that if he was to gain the throne of England, it could only be by force of arms. It was at this point that rumours about the survival of the direct line of the Wessex royal family in Hungary began to circulate on the continent, reaching Edward’s ears. William’s journey to the deployment laid out on Freeman’s map had already been a long and complicated one. His claim to be England’s king was dubious in contemporary terms. His great aunt Emma was the wife of King Aethelraed of Wessex, but he had been given a more recent claim by Edward the Confessor which Harold Godwinson had recognised while an enforced guest of William after being shipwrecked in northern France four years later. But, unknown to all three until about 1054, there was a direct claimant to the English throne, who was then in exile at the court of András I, the newly-restored King of Hungary.


The Wessex Exiles at the Court of the Kings of Hungary:

The Baptism of István (Stephen) by Bishop Gellért.

Before the reign of István (1000-1038), there are no traces of direct relations between the two countries. Alfred the Great, contemporary of Árpád, the conqueror of the Carpathian Basin, wrote that all he knew of this territory was that it was desert. The Hungarian word ‘puszta’ means ‘desert’, referring to the expansive grasslands of the Great Hungarian Plain which occupies most of the Carpathian Basin. Neither did Alfred write of any of the peoples living in the regions between Carinthia and Bulgaria, which he mentioned. So, the first mention of Hungary is recorded when King István received the two young sons of Eadmund Ironside at his Court, exiles from Canute’s Court following his takeover of their father’s kingdom in 1016-17.


Archaeological finds along the banks of the Oder and Vistula reveal that, from the early eleventh century, Hungary had direct commercial relations with the Vikings. The road across Russia, and especially to Kyiv, seems to have played a prominent role in these relations. According to a passage in a chronicle written in French verse by Gaimar, who lived in Northumbria, István was acquainted with the Dane Valgarus even before he brought the sons of Eadmund Ironside to the Hungarian Royal Court.

István was the first Christian king of Hungary, anointed by the Pope and sent a crown by him. One of his first laws on founding the state was to order the building of Romanesque-style churches across the country:


Sándor Fesk, writing in 1940, believed that the Princes lived in Hungary somewhere near the Russian border, hence the confusion of the German chronicler who claimed they were domiciled in ‘Ruzzia’. At that time there was a frontier between Russia and Hungary and the region where the Hungarian, Russian and Polish territories touched was not so well-defined as to exclude the possibility of chroniclers confusing their geographical and political data. The Princes of Wessex may have spent their early years, if not decades, of their exile in the north-east of Hungary in the County of Zemplén, near the Russian frontier (the modern-day border with sub-Carpathian Ukraine), where they first met the future wife of Andrew I, the daughter of Yaroslav, the Grand Duke of Kyiv. Andrew was born about the same year as Edward, who married a Hungarian noblewoman, Agatha, a relative of the German Emperor, and possibly the daughter of István and Gisela. She bore him three children, who were all educated in Hungary. They had two daughters, Margaret, born in 1045, and Christine, and a son, Eadgar, born in 1051.

Popular belief has it that, on their marriage, István gave Edward and Agatha a region in the County of Baranya as their home, in the hills close to the cathedral city of Pécs, which became known as ‘terra Britannorum’. This was probably considered remote enough within Hungary from the Royal Court to provide a home for Edward and Agatha to raise a family, safe enough from Canute’s successors until Edward the Confessor returned the House of Wessex to the throne in 1042. Margaret is said to have been born there, in Mecseknádásd (pictured above), but Edgar may have been born at the Royal Court in Szekesfehérvár, to which the Royal couple returned in about 1046, to aid Andrew I in gaining control of Hungary and in consolidating the Catholic Church. Medieval Hungarian chronicles state that Andrew had an illegitimate son, named George by a woman from the village of Pilismarót. His name became popular among Orthodox believers, and one historian has written that his mother may have been a Russian lady-in-waiting to Andrew’s wife, Anastasia of Kyiv. It has been claimed that George accompanied the Wessex exiles back to Britain, settling with other Magyar nobles in Scotland, and that the Clan Drummond are descended from George and his son Maurice.


It was only in 1054 that the English courtiers began to hear of Prince Edward of Wessex’s survival in exile and to consider him as a possible heir to the throne. The Confessor’s attention was called to the prince living in exile in a far-away land. Aeldred, then Bishop of Worcester, was the leader of the Saxon partisans of Eadgar Aetheling. He went to Cologne as the Confessor’s ambassador to Henry III, Emperor of Germany, with the request that he should negotiate with the King of Hungary for the return of the Royal family of Wessex. Although the Bishop was received with pomp and splendour, he left the imperial city a year later, without accomplishing this task. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not give the reason why the powerful Emperor of Germany did not comply with the King of England’s request, but other sources suggest that this was due to the emperor being a relative to the Confessor’s then named heir, Harold Godwinson, or it may have been due to his awareness of the Confessor’s promise to William. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated that Aeldred was the first churchman from Britain to travel through Hungary to the Holy Land in 1058. However, by the time Aeldred reached the Hungarian court, Edward the Exile had already returned to England with his family and Henry III had died, thus removing the immediate obstacle to the Exile’s succession. It was only in 1057 that, after four decades of exile, Edward was recalled to England with his family by the ageing, childless Confessor who was delighted to hear of his nephew’s survival and of his family. No doubt, Harold’s betrayal of his brother Alfred and his unpopularity at court had led the Confessor’s preference for the succession of the royal Wessex exiles on their return from Hungary. The ‘Exile’ was due to become heir apparent to the English throne, but he then died mysteriously before he was able to see his uncle to receive his blessing and anointment as his successor.

The Four Claimants to the Throne & the Invasions of 1066:

According to the hereditary succession, Eadgar of Wessex was now the ‘Aetheling’, the rightful heir to the throne and therefore just as much in the way of the ambitions of William the Conqueror as his father and uncle, the exiled princes, had been in the way of Canute the Great. Added to that, Harold Godwinson may also have seen him as an obstacle to his family’s hopes. The Confessor died in January 1066, and although Edgar received the support of both the Saxon thegns and bishops for his claim, being the last prince of the dynasty of Cerdic and Alfred, the Witan chose to appoint Harold as King, partly because Eadgar was still a minor. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had already proclaimed Edgar as King, but there was to be no coronation in 1066. More immediately pressing from Harold’s point of view was the threat of another invading army that had landed in Northumbria. Led by Harald Hardrada of Norway, who believed that he had inherited the Danish dynasty’s rights to the English throne, it defeated the local English militia under Earls Edwin and Morcar and occupied York. The new English king would have been hard pressed to to find two more formidable opponents in northern Europe than Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy. Even so, the the scale of Hardrada’s intervention in September 1066 must have come as a profound shock to Harold. Recruiting further men in Shetland and Orkney to add to the fleet he had brought from Bergen, Hardrada arrived off the north-east coast of England with three hundred vessels and a force that was possibly as large as twelve thousand men.

After ravaging the coast at Cleveland and sacking Scarborough, the Norwegians, accompanied by Tostig, sailed up the Humber estuary as far as Ricall on the River Ouse, nine miles from York. The northern earls, Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia placed their army on the Ouse, between the Norsemen and York. Knowing that Harold was preoccupied with the defence of the south against a landing by William, they must have reasoned that nothing would be gained by delaying battle nor by risking a siege of York. Accordingly on 20 September 1066 they deployed across the road across the road at Fulford with their right on the River Ouse and their left protected by marshy ground near Heslington. The battle was long and bloody and the decisive moment came when Hardrada led his own left inwards to roll up the English line. Pressed into the restricted and marshy ground, the English army was cut to pieces and many of its troops drowned, depriving Harold of over a thousand fighting men sorely needed for the campaign ahead. Hardrada and Tostig did not enter York immediately, but began negotiations for the city’s surrender. Meanwhile, Harold had led the English fyrd on a forced march northwards and on the 25 September caught Hardrada by surprise, defeating and killing him at Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent. Having cleared the bridge, the English army rapidly crossed to the east bank where the Norwegian army were drawn up behind a shield wall three hundred yards away on rising ground. The English launched a determined attack and in the ensuing melée both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. Harold allowed Hardrada’s son Olaf to sail away with twenty-four ships, all that was necessary to carry the survivors of the Viking army. Harold had shown himself to be a formidable commander who could act quickly and decisively, posessing the ability to inspire his troops to heroic efforts. But he soon learnt that William had assembled an invasion fleet, slipped across the Channel and landed on the south coast near Pevensey with an army of around eight thousand men. He was therefore forced to turn south and intercept the Norman duke before he could reach London.

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William’s invasion was his response to the personal and political challenge inherent in Harold’s assumption of the English Crown, an act which not only cut across Edward the Confessor’s promise of 1051 that William should be his heir, but also a violation of the oath of fealty to William extracted from Harold at Bonneville-sur-Torques in 1064. Harold’s coup d’état against the Anglo-Norman élite left William with no choice but to take up arms. This was no knee-jerk reaction, however, but a carefullly-prepared invasion on a massive scale. It began with a three-fold diplomatic initiative designed to enlist the support of his vassals, to foster disunity among his enemies in France and Europe more widely, and to gain the support of the Papacy and popular opinion in Christendom. The success of this propaganda campaign was matched by the speed and organisation of his military and and naval preparations. The total invasion fleet may have numbered three thousand ships, which transported two thousand horses and about seven thousand fighting men. The uncertainties of the coming campaign dictated the need for a safe and large anchorage such as that at Hastings, so William moved his troops and ships to the port, ordered the construction of new defences, and proceeded to waste the the surrounding countryside. It was vital for William’s plans that Harold should attack at the earliest opportunity. Although delay would have increased Harold’s strength and attenuated William’s, the English king, possibly driven by the need to defend his ‘domaine’ against Norman marauding, decided to confront the enemy at the first opportunity. When he marched from London on 11 October, Harold might have hoped that he could surprise the Norman army as he had the Scandinavian one at Stamford. The English halted at what is now the town of Battle during the night of 13-14 October after his second march, this time of sixty miles, which had taken a tremendous toll on the infantry.

Learning of the Anglo-Danish advance, William eagerly seized his chance and marched from Hastings early in the morning, and by 8.30 a.m. the Normans had reached Telham Hill opposite Harold’s position, a mile away, on a ridge crossing a spur of the Downs running south from the forest of Andredsweald. The course and eventual outcome of the ‘Battle of Hastings’ of 14 October 1066 are well known. The housecarls resisted the Norman cavalry charges all day, but the morale of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd collapsed when Harold and his brothers were killed. The fyrd fled the field and were butchered in their hundreds during the retreat. William had won the battle, but not yet a kingdom, and his advance towards London was cautious and halting. By the end of November the Normans could count themselves masters of Kent, Sussex and parts of Hampshire, so that William was able to turn his attention to the capital. It was unlikely that William would be able to storm London with the force at his disposal and he therefore chose to march across the southern, western and northern approaches to the city, laying waste to the country as he went.

After that, resistance was sporadic and although the Witan, as the royal council, offered the throne to Eadgar Aetheling, he commanded little support and no army, and when William approached Berkhamsted, Eadgar met him with the northern earls Edwin and Morcar and the leading men of the church and the city, all of whom offered submission. Although initially proclaiming him king on hearing of Harold Godwinson’s death at Hastings, the Saxon Witenagemot had been disappointed in the teenage Eadgar, and he was never crowned. He was still a minor, and lacked William’s power of leadership. As the latter advanced on London, the Anglo-Saxon leaders acknowleged William as lawful claimant to the throne. There was no other male descendant of the House of Wessex, though the rule of the foreign conqueror seemed all but unbearable. Finally, the thegns were obliged to admit that they could not hope to be liberated by a young king, especially one who did not seem either brave or exceptionally bright. William was crowned at Edward the Confessor’s newly-inaugurated Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. William kept Eadgar in his custody and took him, along with other English leaders, to his court in Normandy in 1067, before returning with them to England. William then consolidated his control over England, taking pains to point out that he, as lawful successor to the Confessor, would guarantee the rights of his new subjects.

The Continuing Conquest, 1067-1072:

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England, or rather the loosely allied Saxon kingdoms which the Kings of Wessex had unified in resistance to Scandinavian invasions and encroachments, from Alfred the Great to Edward the Confessor, was once more divided by the Norman Conquest after 1066, losing its short-lived independence. Edward’s widow, Agatha and her family continued to live in England in the company of the Hungarian gentlemen who had escorted them there and remained in their retinue. Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester who had arranged for Edward’s return to claim the throne, had continued to support the rights of Eadgar after the Battle of Hastings. He only abandoned his cause when Eadgar himself showed no desire to resist William usurping the throne. Accepting the hopelessness of Eadgar’s case, Ealdred was himself among those who crowned William I at Westminster Abbey, as Archbishop of York (from 1060). It is said that he died of a broken heart in 1069, due to the desperate state of the Saxon cause in the North, following yet another Danish incursion. The rest of the royal family were obliged to contemplate flight, and their thoughts turned again to Hungary. They boarded a ship, presumably bound for Hamburg, but a storm drove them into port in Scotland. They anchored in the harbour which is still called ‘Margaret’s Hope’ on the Forth, and landed there. According to the legend, there they were met by the King of Scots, Malcolm III (Canmore), who rode out to them. Apparently, he soon fell in love with the beautiful, gentle Margaret, and sought her hand in marriage.

Malcolm greeting Margaret of Wessex at Queensferry. on her arrival in Scotland; detail of a mural by Victorian artist William Hole

After a period of hesitation, Margaret accepted the proffered hand and became his Queen Consort in 1070, and with it a major role in European and Scottish history. Her sister, Christine, eventually returned to England after Edgar’s reconciliation with William the Conqueror. She entered the convent of Romsey back in Wessex and became a nun, playing a prominent role in the education of Queen Margaret’s children, especially her daughter Maud, or Matilda, who became Henry I’s queen consort. Christine became personally acquainted with Anselm, the great Archbishop of Canterbury. However, it is the name of Margaret, of Wessex, Hungary and Scotland who, of the three grandchildren of the Saxon King, Eadmund Ironside, is the most marked by place and time. Her importance lies not only in the fact that the reforms started in the ecclesiastical and political life of Scotland during the reign of Malcolm (Canmore) were due to Margaret’s gentle influence, but also that she ennobled the still austere morals and customs of the kingdom. Indeed, according to the contemporary evidence of both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Simeon of Durham, she also civilized her adoptive country. Her importance to her paternal country England, however, has been underestimated. When Malcolm married Margaret, he agreed to support Edgar in his attempt to reclaim the English throne. Edgar had fled north to join his mother and sisters at the court of King Malcolm of Scotland, from where he had became involved in the abortive rebellion of the Earls Edwin and Morcar in 1068.

By 1068 the harsh new Norman régime had led to native uprisings in England, and soon there were further revolts in the North, among the English supporters of Eadgar the Aetheling. The Norman land grab and their tight system of feudal dues, which was later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, was resisted by some of the thegns, among them Hereward Asketilson of Bourne in Lincolnshire, and many of the commoners followed them, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. When a major rebellion broke out in Northumbria at the beginning of 1069, Edgar returned to England with other rebels who had fled to Scotland, to become the leader, or at least the figurehead, of the revolt. In late summer that year the arrival of a fleet sent by King Sweyn of Denmark triggered a fresh wave of English uprisings in various parts of the country. A Danish fleet in the Humber stirred Wessex and Mercia into action, while Eadgar and the other exiles sailed to the Humber, where they linked up with Northumbrian rebels and the Danes. Their combined forces overwhelmed the Normans at York and they took control of Northumbria. But William’s response was resolute with the Conqueror resorting to terror tactics. Late in the year 1069, he fought his way into Northumbria and occupied York, buying off the Danes and devastating the surrounding country in his well-known ‘Harrying of the North’. He spent the winter of 1069-70 laying waste all before him, until all resistance was ended. A small seaborne raid which Eadgar led into Lindsey (Lincolnshire) ended in disaster and he escaped with only a handful of followers to rejoin the main army. Early in 1070, William moved against Eadgar and other English leaders who had taken refuge with their remaining followers in a marshy region, perhaps Holderness, and put them to flight.This ‘Harrying’ had put paid to any to the serious risings in the north of England and the eastern fenlands in 1069-70. Eadgar returned to Scotland and again sought refuge with Malcolm. He remained there until 1072 when William invaded Scotland and forced King Malcolm to submit to his overlordship at Abernathy.

Resistance & Reconciliation:

William did not attempt a conquest of Scotland, but Malcolm was forced to hand over his eldest son, Duncan, as a hostage. The terms of the agreement between them probably also included the expulsion of Eadgar, who took up residence in Flanders, where the Count, Robert the Frisian, was hostile to the Normans. There was one other serious revolt, in 1075, but this was led by disgruntled Norman barons. There was no longer any threat of a popular Anglo-Danish uprising, but William had learnt that he could no longer count on the support of the native aristocracy and had therefore to rely on his northern French followers to secure the Conquest. Even before the uprisings in the north and east, he had given his half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, the earldom of Kent and the castle at Dover, from which to defend the Channel, while the Welsh marches were guarded by entrusting a vast new earldom of Hereford to his steward, William fitz Osbern, who also held Norwich in case of a Danish attack. Now, in 1071, he gave Hugh d’Avranches the new earldom of Chester, to secure the border with Gwynedd, and then to conquer it if possible. Hugh began by lacing his cousin Robert in the new castle at Rhuddlan. By 1075 another of William’s barons, Roger de Montgomery, now earl of Shrewsbury, was intent on expanding into Powys. William visited St David’s in 1081 and recognised its native ruler, Rhys ap Tewdwr as his vassal in South Wales, while informally acknowledging Robert of Rhuddlan as lord of North Wales.

In 1074 Eadgar was able to return to Scotland once more. Shortly after his arrival there he received an offer from Philip I of France, who was also at odds with William, of a castle and lands near the borders of Normandy from which he would be able to raid his enemies’ homeland. He embarked with his followers for France, but a storm wrecked their ships on the English coast. Many of Eadgar’s men were hunted down by the Normans, but he managed to escape with the remainder to Scotland by land. Following this disaster, he was persuaded by Malcolm to make peace with William and return to England as his subject, abandoning any ambition of regaining his ancestral throne. Later, Edgar was forced to pay homage to William of Normandy and so, we are told, the last male descendant of Cerdic dragged on a sluggish and contented life as the friend and pensioner of Norman patrons. When the First Crusade was preached in England in 1095, he was one of the Anglo-Norman knights to join the contingent of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and we are told that the group he led distinguished itself in service to the Byzantine emperor on the crusade of 1101-2 (see below).

The question of where the anglo-Scottish border should be fixed was still a matter of continual dispute and, when Malcolm invaded England in 1079, William’s son Robert was sent north and built his ‘New Castle’ on the Tyne to help secure the frontier. Margaret died shortly after her husband was killed in fighting in Cumberland in 1093 and Eadgar, having finally given up his claim to the English throne, died in 1126. By then, the continuing tension with the Norman rulers had finally brought to an end by the marriage of Margaret’s daughter, Matilda, to King Henry I of England, second son of William of Normandy (11 November 1100). The marriage produced the dynastic conditions necessary for the reconciliation of the Normans and the Saxons: through it, the Norman usurpers became rightful claimants to the English throne. Another consequence of Matilda’s marriage was that the crown of Alfred the Great passed through an unbroken Wessex royal line to Margaret and then on to the Plantagenet dynasty. Margaret’s granddaughter, also named Matilda, was the mother of the first Plantagenet and Angevin king, Henry II (1154-1189) so that the blood of the Anglo-Saxon kings continued to flow in the veins of the Kings of England through to the end of the Middle Ages.

The Anglo-Danish State of Edward the Confessor:

Besides the survival of a small number of Anglo-Saxon lords from the time of Edward the Confessor, we need to remember that his realm was an Anglo-Danish state in which men of both Anglo-Saxon and Danish descent regarded themselves as ‘English’. This ‘English’ nobility was by no means completely replaced as a result of the Conquest. The various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries continue to refer to West Saxons and Mercians, as well as East Anglians and Northumbrians, and also to Danes, but not to ‘Anglo-Saxons’, which was a later, generic nomenclature. In common speech, they were all called ‘English folk’. This is further confirmed in the pages of the Domesday Book, which speaks of Englishmen and Frenchmen, but rarely of Danes and never of ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Ever since the reign of Alfred, the numbers who could claim Danish ‘blood’ had been rising. Like Normandy (‘the French Danelaw’), England had a Scandinavian heritage founded on the settlement by peoples of Danish and Norse origins. Later, men could rightly claim that they came under West Saxon Law or Mercian Law or Dane Law, and a whole area of the country, roughly- speaking north and east of Watling Street but excluding north-western Mercia, could be called ‘Danelagh’. Indeed, the southern Danelaw was more easily absorbed into England than western Mercia because the Danes had more readily accepted Christianity than many Mercians.

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It was in the ‘Danelaw’ that the Danes had settled intensively, in the land of the Five Boroughs (Derby, Lincoln, Nottingham, Leicester and Stamford), in each of which a Danish army had made its base. As for the area further north, incorporation had been more difficult as kings faced a mixed population of Saxons, Scots, Danes and Norse-Irish. There they were therefore content to treat the Danes as equal subjects rather than as a conquered people. By the time of Edward the Elder’s reign, every shire had its own Ealdorman, though he reduced their numbers to eight south of the Trent, five in the Midlands and East Anglia, and two or three in Wessex, while in the Five Boroughs several men styled themselves ‘Eorl’ but without official functions. The Ealdormen were leaders of the shire levies in times of war and presided over the shire ‘moots’. Gradually the work of the Ealdermen expanded so that they became, in effect, provincial governors of a group of shires and so preparing the way for Cnut’s creation of the great Earldoms. In the reign of Ethelred the ‘Unready’ (or ‘ill-advised’), the Danes had arrived in force and conquered the whole country. This marked the disadvantage of the Anglo-Danish division of the country, making it attractive to Scandinavian invaders, as did its immense wealth. There was then a short dynasty of three Danish kings, Cnut the Great and his two sons, Harold I (‘Harefoot’) and ‘Harthacnut’.

Cnut the Great had adopted a policy of promoting Danes or men with Danish connections to positions of power and influence. Most of his ‘jarls’ or earls were in fact Danes, and, of the three great earls who emerged by the end of the reign, Siward of Northumbria was a Dane. It is a tribute to the strength of the Anglo-Danish monarchy developed by Cnut that the two parts of the country, English and Danish, learned to live peacefully together. In eastern England, especially in the areas of Danish settlement, there developed a new element of freedom in local society which took the form of manors consisting of a central estate to which belonged scattered and virtually independent peasants dispersed over a wide area and paying light rents. This explains the frequency with which manors are found to which berewicks and sokes were attached. The essential feature of a manor was the presence of the lord’s house. It has been suggested that Harthacanut actually prepared the way for Edward the Confessor’s succession, making him a sort of joint king and using him as his regent when necessary because he had problems in Denmark and distrusted the earls, but equally it can be argued that he never expected Edward to outlive him. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the Abingdon Chronicle C) in 1041, says:

And early in the same year came Edward, his brother on his mother’s side, from abroad: he was the son of King Aethelraede, and had long been in exile from his country, but nevertheless was sworn in as King: and then he remained in his brother’s court as long as he {Harthacnut} lived.

After Harthacnut’s death, it would have been possible for any one of the various Danish claimants, Magnus of Norway, Swein Estrithson or Harald Hardrada, to have seized the throne, though it seems that none of them was in a position to do so. The Anglo-Danish group of earls, led by Earls Godwin and Leofric, saw to it that Edward was recalled to England in the closing months of Harthacnut’s reign, where he was received by all folk as king, as was his natural right. This was usually taken to indicate a desire to return to the Alfredian line of kings, since not only was Edward, as the son of Aethelraede II, a descendant of the royal house of Cerdic, and therefore of the god Woden, but also, through his mother Emma, daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy, descended from Rollo the Viking, his great-great-grandfather, who had founded Normandy. So Edward was also of Scandinavian descent, and that made him acceptable as king to these formidable groups of Anglo-Danish warrior-statesmen. It is perhaps not so surprising that he sought solace in the company of men among whom he had grown up or with whom he had become acquainted in Normandy. This, rather than any deep plot to ‘Normanise’ England or prepare the way for a Norman takeover under William the Bastard, explains his desire to have a number of ‘Frenchmen’ at his court. As already noted, following the return of Edward the Exile, he was, in any case, committed to the Wessex succession until he was on his deathbed.

A further indication of the Anglo-Danish nature of the English state was that Earl Godwin of Wessex had married into the Danish royal family. Of the other earls, only Leofric, Earl of Mercia, was English, the son of Ealdorman Leofwine. Apparently, intermarriage was common at all levels of society but particularly important among the upper classes. There were Danes, too, among the ranks of the king’s thegns, those who held ‘seat and special duty’ in the King’s Hall, and served as his eyes and ears in the shires. There were two ranks of king’s thegns, those of ordinary rank, the Median thegns, and those ‘who stand nearest to him’. In general, when royal writs were addressed to the bishop and sheriff (‘shire-reeve’) and ‘to all my thegns in Norfolk’, the phrase was taken to mean, literally (in the Latin), ‘the King’s ministers’ and therefore to refer to the men from whom he would choose his earls. They attended Witenagemots, meetings of the King’s council, but otherwise did not necessarily hold a specific office. Thus king’s thegns were a numerous class, and some were wealthy men, well equipped for war. Indeed, by the eleventh century, the word ‘thegn’ itself could imply nobility, to distinguish between those who were ‘thegn-born’ and those ‘ceorl-born’. The distinction is borne out by the difference in ‘wergild’, the amount to be paid for slaying a man. A thegn of ordinary rank had a wergild of 1,200 shillings (‘a twelfth-hyndman’) and a ‘ceorl’, or peasant, had one of only two hundred shillings. In the North, while a ‘ceorl’ was valued at a similar price, which equated to 266 ‘thrymas’; a king’s high reeve, a rank below that of a ‘jarl’, was valued at four thousand thrymas and a thegn at half of that.

By the 1060s, the rank of thegn had become hereditary, but a man might thrive and better himself until he held fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bell house and burh gate, seat, and special duty in the king’s hall, then he was thenceforth thegn-right worthy. He might prosper even more and come to serve the king at his summons and among his household, a plain definition of a king’s thegn who might even become an earl. The references in Domesday Book to ‘huscarls’, the Danish fully trained household troops, should not be overlooked either, though such a man corresponded closely to the Old English rank of a thegn. The main difference was that some huscarls formed a highly organised guild of specialised fighting men. The king’s thegns were men with estates in several shires, equivalent in size and value to a Norman barony. For instance, Aelfstan of Boscombe in Wiltshire had lands in eight shires, forfeited after the Conquest and forming the major part of the barony of William, Count of Eu. The king regarded it as necessary to maintain the dignity of his thegns in order to safeguard the honour of the Crown. By the reign of King Edward, many of these royal servants were known by the Scandinavian title of ‘staller’ or placeholder, implying that he was a permanent member of the royal entourage.

In the Danelaw before the Conquest, and particularly in Lincolnshire, society possessed a high degree of freedom. The land was held by thegns and sokemen with free disposal of their estates. They performed service in the ‘Wapentake’, (the local court) in person. ‘Sake’ and ‘soke’ implied a whole range of judicial dues, food rents, labour services, all reserved for the holer of the ‘soke’, the overlord, who was answerable directly to the king. Sake and soke were also held together with toll and team, the right to receive payment from the sale of goods within an estate or to hold a court to settle disputes over cattle or goods. They were also entitled to carry out infangenetheof, the right to hang a thief caught red-handed with stolen goods. The possession of soke and sake was also indicative of the ownership of ‘Bookland’, held through the existence of a landbook or charter. Since they were therefore seen as overlords of lesser men, these king’s thegns were considered by the makers of the Domesday Book to be the designated predecessors of the new Norman owners, and several are listed as conferring the title on their successors. King’s thegns, holding groups of dependent manors were seen by the Normans to resemble lords holding by barony; they could be personally summoned to the ‘fyrd’ and be held responsible for the performance of military service by his knights. It could be said that a ‘fief’- honoured baron was a king’s thegn in all but name. Whether such overlordship was common is still a matter of debate, with some maintaining that there were many more than those mentioned in Domesday, but they must have existed since it was from such men that the Norman successors derived their title to land.

Another indication of overlordship was the existence of multiple manors formed of groups of estates under one lord. That the overlord was not always named is explained because the holders of sake and soke were not always named if the land was held by sub-tenants. The exact proportions of men of English and Danish origin cannot be known and there was certainly much intermarriage so that a man with an English or Danish personal name would not necessarily be only of one ethnicity. By 1066 there were landowners in every part of England with Scandinavian names, many of whom had inherited their land from men who had served Cnut. Ansgar the Staller, for example, was the grandson of Cnut’s man Tovi the Proud. Some indication of proportions can be gained from the lists of personal names used in those areas for which lists exist; these are Northamptonshire, where one-third are Danish names; North Cambridgeshire, where half are; and South Yorkshire, where two-thirds are Danish. Scandinavian names were still in use in the time of Henry II, with hundreds appearing on lists for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and scores in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Norfolk, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Suffolk. They are noticeably rarer elsewhere, as might be expected.

The Anglo-Danish state established by Cnut was merely the Alfredian state under new management. Huscarls linked the Danish kings to the localities just as the English kings’ thegns had linked them to their wider society. Many among the older aristocracy had been destroyed in the battles of the tenth and early eleventh centuries, to be replaced by the new Anglo-Danish ruling class. During his reign, Cnut had remained, like William I after him, a conqueror, an empire-builder. His authority rested on military force, not blood-right, again like William, but Danish blood-right did not succeed in establishing itself because Cnut’s sons lacked his abilities. So the Old English dynasty was restored for a time, and under Edward, the co-existence of Cnut’s several earldoms proved no threat to the kingdom’s political unity, so that there was never any serious threat of a civil war in which Edward might be removed. But though he succeeded in forcing the powerful Godwinsons to flee the country, he was then unable to keep them out where a more forceful ruler might have done so. Cnut had had no such problems, and never allowed his earls to become the equivalent of continental dukes or counts. They kept the names of their old tribal kingdoms; Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, but Wessex was confined south of the Thames, Mercia no longer ran from the Welsh border to the North Sea, nor Northumbria to the Firth of Forth.

Hereward the Fenland Outlaw:

By Mike Young, for the Ely Society Publications Committee.

It was into this Anglo-Danish state, sometime after 1045, that the legendary Anglo-Danish ‘guerilla’ leader Hereward Asketilson was born. His name was clearly Danish, and the late Peter Rex contended that he was born into a well-to-do Danish family and that his father was a king’s thegn. It is this Danish background that accounts for his alliance with the Danes in 1070. That he might have preferred a Dane as king to the Normans, does not make Hereward a traitor. Even in eleventh-century English society, Hereward was not expected to accept William as his lord and king and was quite free to fight against him. Hereward and those like him who chose to fight the Normans did not see themselves as desiring to return to foreign rule, because to them it was William and his ‘Frenchmen’ who were the foreigners. There is a great deal of mythology surrounding and shrouding this historical figure, but all the sources agree that he was a lord of Bourne in Lincolnshire and the son of Leofric of Bourne, probably an earl, and his wife Aediva. The real clue to his background lies in his relationship to Brand, the last pre-Norman Abbot of Peterborough.

Hereward was certainly a man of some means before he was outlawed and exiled in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Having learned his trade as a soldier in Flanders, he returned to England after the Norman occupation to find his estates seized and to lead a combined Anglo-Danish attack on Peterborough Abbey. He then took refuge from William’s forces on the Isle of Ely, was deserted by his Danish allies and held out alone until reinforced by the arrival of Earl Morcar and his supporters from Northumbria. The major chronicles state that Hereward escaped through the Fens and was never seen nor heard of again, perhaps becoming, for a second time yet another English exile. Coming from a widespread Danish clan, Hereward can best be seen as a typical product of the Danish element in the English state.

The Fens in the time of Hereward. By Mike Young for the Ely Society.

The Norman/Wessex Dynasties; Feudalism & Knight Service:

The Norman reliance on feudalism as the basis upon which to raise and equip armies through ‘knight service’ was alien to English practice. William’s introduction of feudalism should be seen as as the result of his need to maintain a large force for the defence of his conquest rather than as a conscious attempt to sweep away the Anglo-Danish system of mobilisation. Whereas the the lordship of Anglo-Saxon England was a personal bond rooted firmly in the concept of the war-band, the lordship of Norman society had developed beyond that point to a feudal relationship based upon homage, fealty and and the holding of a fief, usually in the form of land. The tenant of the land was the military vassal of the lord who granted the fief. By 1087 the whole of England, with the exception of the land held by the king and the church, had been granted to lords as fiefs for which, in turn, they rendered military and knightly service to the monarch. The church did not escape the obligation to support the king and William received knight-service from the religious houses and bishoprics of at least the south of England. In turn, the knights holding fiefs from the king proceeded with a subinfeudation by granting fiefs to the knights and vassals on their own estates. The number of knights to be provided by the tenant in return was set by the granter; it has been calculated that William obtained some five thousand knights through enfeoffments. Through feudal service he was able to field an élite striking force of heavy cavalry with which to maintain his hold upon England and Normandy. Writing in the early twelfth century, William of Malmesbury assessed the impact of these changes in state and church upon the English ruling classes:

It is the habitation of strangers and the dominion of foreigners. There is today no Englishman who is either earl, bishop or abbot. The newcomers devour the riches and entrails of England, and there is no hope of the misery coming to an end.

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By the time of William’s death in 1087, England’s rulers had changed to a considerable extent. The Conquest was no mere change of leadership, however. To defend his new kingdom, William needed large numbers of loyal mounted knights and continental-style castles. He also had to reward with estates those who had assisted him. Although Norman ‘feudalism’ was partly an adaptation of existing institutions and customs, it brought huge changes in land ownership in England. By 1086, the Domesday Book revealed only four members of the Old English ruling class still in possession of their lands; over four thousand pre-Conquest thegns had been dispossessed; England was now in the hands of fewer than two thousand new barons. With papal support, William also reorganised the English Church, removing Englishmen from bishoprics and abbeys. In this he was ably assisted by his ecclesiastical adviser, the Italian-born Lanfranc of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070. The language and culture of the Normans was French, not Norse. The new régime was headed by a French-speaking élite, the focus of whose world was the European mainland, where they continued to hold land. William himself was an infrequent visitor to England after 1072, usually only when military threats arose from within or without; he was not buried in Westminster Abbey, like his predecessor, but in Caen in Normandy. As Duke of Normandy, he was a vassal king of France; Anglo-Danish and French politics were thus inextricably entwined, as they had been (we might add) for Edward the Confessor. William’s enemies, including the King of France and the Count of Anjou, exploited the restlessness among his sons to undermine him from 1078.

After William’s death in 1087, William II (Rufus) survived a rebellion of Anglo-Norman magnates against the division of the dukedom and the kingdom and a later conspiracy in 1095. He consolidated Norman control over Northern England, establishing a base at Carlisle, and exploited the death of Malcolm Canmore by ensuring the succession of the Normanising sons of Margaret of Hungary and Wessex, beginning with Duncan (1094) and Edgar (1097-1107). In Wales, Rufus encouraged further expansion into Gwynedd and Powys, and also from Hereford along the Wye and Usk valleys. When Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed by Normans in 1093, all Deheubarth was opened up and the Norman ‘marcher’ lordships of Gower, Kidwelly and Pembroke were established. He was therefore enjoying considerable success when killed while hunting in the New Forest in 1100. With his elder brother still journeying home from the first Crusade, the younger brother took the throne and the duchy and the kingdom were eventually reunited under Henry I in 1106. He had already astutely married the daughter of Malcolm Canmore and Margaret of Wessex, giving his children greater legitimacy in the eyes of his Saxon subjects, and sealing good relations with the Scottish sons of Wessex.

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By 1120, the Anglo-Norman kings of England had gained more power over their barons than any rulers on the Continent. After the Norman Conquest it seemed ‘providential’ for the country that strong and vigorous kings ruled it. The Norman kings checked the power of the feudal barons, enforced order and benefited the common people. England became more united than it had ever been under the Saxon, Danish and Anglo-Danish kings. Henry helped Normans, Saxons and Danes to live in peace, and granted a charter upholding the best of the English laws. He set up a King’s Court, Curia Regis, where disputes and crimes were dealt with by trained lawyers, and the people valued ‘the King’s peace’. Some of his plans to develop a system of justice were carried out by his grandson, Henry II. But Henry had to spend more than half his reign after 1106 in France, trying to keep the French king and the Count of Anjou at bay. His absences and financial need help to explain the advances in the machinery of Anglo-Norman government that were a feature of his reign, including the emergence of professional administrators and an exchequer. His only legitimate son, William Adelin, was drowned in the White Ship Disaster in the Channel in 1120, leaving his daughter, the Empress Matilda (wife of the German Emperor Henry V) as heir. As a consequence, the last fifteen years of Henry I’s life were taken up by the succession. To bolster Matilda’s position, Henry arranged her remarriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, but he did little more to establish her succession. Hence, when Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne and holder of vast estates in the southeast of England sailed across the Channel, seized the royal treasury at Winchester and persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to anoint him as king. Matilda’s supporters gave her the title Lady of the English and the two fought a prolonged civil war.

The Normans: William I, Willian II, Henry I and Stephen from a fourteenth-century manuscript

Britain and the Impact of the First Crusade:

The crusading knights set out with high ideals. They saw their task as a holy mission.

The military and religious movement now known as the Crusades began in 1093, with the call from Pope Urban II for a campaign to free the holy places of the Middle East from Muslim domination. Christian Europe mounted a series of military expeditions throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, establishing four small Christian states in the Holy Land. The most visible and permanent sign of British involvement in the Crusades was the presence of the priorities of the Hospitaller and Templar knights throughout Britain and Ireland. These military orders, whose headquarters lay in the Holy Land in the twelfth century, depended on their network of landed possessions in the West for income, supplies and military personnel. Most British priories, staffed by only a few knights, were primarily administrative centres from which the estates could be managed. About one-third of their revenue was sent to the East.

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Anglo-Norman and English soldiers and seamen participated in most of the main crusades to the Holy Land. Edgar the Aetheling’s fleet in the First Crusade (1098) is marked in yellow on the map. The picture below shows a crusade preparing to set sail, from a 14th-century miniature.

As the picture above shows, organising a crusade was a complex and hugely expensive enterprise and not something to be entered into lightly or motivated purely by material gain. Britain’s involvement with crusading was at first modest. A twelfth-century English chronicler wrote that of the events in Asia, only a faint murmur crossed the Channel. The First Crusade was almost certainly preached in England in 1095, although we know very little about the circumstances. Many Anglo-Norman knights undoubtedly joined the contingent of Robert, Duke of Normandy, including William de Goulafriére (or Golafre, as he was now known); in general, cross-channel family connections must have been the means by which most crusaders were recruited from Britain. The great nobles of Western Europe set off in 1096 by different routes to Constantinople. There was no single commander, but Godfrey de Bouillon was the best-known leader. With the aid of the Byzantine Emperor, they crossed the Bosphorus, overran Asia Minor and in 1099 entered Jerusalem. They set up four Catholic kingdoms with Godfrey de Bouillon governing Jerusalem, and the other three rulers paying homage to him. But the success of the Crusade was short-lived, for the Turks soon began to recover their lost lands. One group of English Crusaders, led by Eadgar Aetheling, distinguished itself in the service of the Byzantine emperor on the crusade of 1101-2.

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As a result of the crusades, a new interest in intellectual matters developed in Western Europe, for large numbers of people were influenced by the older civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire and new ‘wisdom’ from the Arabs. Philosophy, mathematics and science were studied in medieval universities as they developed. There was also an increase in trade between East and West, with the commercial city states of Venice and Genoa becoming rich as a result of the increased trade in the Mediterranean. Towns grew up, and merchants gained greater power all over Europe by buying privileges from nobles who needed money to take part in the crusades. Military methods were introduced from the East, in new styles of castle-building and the development of armour. Eventually, the introduction of siege weapons changed the nature of medieval warfare. Even before the embarkation of the first English crusaders, the influence of crusading ideas had been felt in England itself. In 1066 the Crusader concept of the ‘just war’ could be seen in the papal banner that accompanied William the Conqueror’s invading army. That is why the Conquest of England itself should, from a continental point of view, more properly seen as a Crusade.

(to be continued… )


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David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. New York & Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (c 1938), A Sketch-Map History of Britain & Europe to 1485. London: Harrap & Company.

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