The End of Saxon England? Revisiting the Norman Conquest, 1035-1135: Chapter II – Castles, Abbeys, Cathedrals & Churches.

Knights, Barons & Castles:

The knights who served William ‘the Conqueror’ were armed in many respects as their English opponents, wearing mail hauberks and conical helmets, and carrying kite-shaped shields, lances, swords and maces. If battlefield tactics were dominated by the mounted knight, the strategies of war were increasingly subject to the powerful influence of the castle. William’s trained knights were ideal troops for use against the scattered English risings but they were unsuited to the prolonged task of holding regions whose loyalty was suspect. His followers also thought it necessary to impress the natives with their might. Throughout the land, they erected castles, fitting monuments to their mastery. They were simple affairs at first – earth mounds (mottes), surrounded by ditches and surmounted by fenced enclosures (baileys). Within their wooden towers (keeps) inside the baileys, the foreign landlords felt secure from the Saxon peasantry. From these strongholds, they sallied forth to fight for their king and to wage their own private battles against each other. In Suffolk, the newcomers had little trouble with the people; the freemen and the peasants of the county resigned themselves without a struggle to the exchange of a Danish conqueror for a Norman one. King William parcelled out his new dominion to tenants-in-chief who, in turn, sub-let to others in return for payments in service or ‘in kind’. Every substantial landholder built his own defensive stronghold.

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The men of Suffolk knew that it was futile to rise against the Normans; they knew how strong the new castles were – they had, after all, built them themselves under the watchful eyes of Norman overseers. In these areas of East Anglia, as elsewhere, fortified bases and strong points were vital and this need was filled by an intensive programme of castle-building. By 1100 there were at least eighty-four castles in England and there may have been as many as four hundred, whereas before the Conquest there had been only a few examples, in the Welsh marches and in Essex, of castle-building. Castles were sited to defend the chief ports and estuaries of England, to guard border areas against incursion, to control river and road communications and to overawe centres of population. As the early timber and earth castles were replaced by stone structures and the spread of castles capable of withstanding a prolonged siege both dissipated and strengthened royal power. Although the construction of a castle, as at Framlingham in Suffolk, could enable a rebellious baron to defy central authority the spread of regional rebellion was, on the whole, easier to control and isolate.

The Bigods of Framlingham and Bungay were central characters in the history of Suffolk, if not of England as a whole. In 1066, King William appointed Ralph De Guader, an East Anglian nobleman of Breton origins, as earl of Norfolk and Suffolk. But Ralph was involved in an abortive rebellion nine years later and it was then that Roger Bigod, a poor knight, was rewarded by King William for his loyalty to the crown by granting him the bulk of Guader’s confiscated estates (117 manors in Suffolk as well as other lands in the adjoining counties) and appointing him the royal steward in East Anglia. Roger was succeeded by his eldest son, William, but in 1120 disaster struck for the Bigods, King Henry I and England. Henry’s eldest son, Prince William, set sail from Harfleur with three hundred companions, the flower of English chivalry. The White Ship carrying them foundered and of all the company only a Norman butcher was left to carry the news to Winchester. William Bigod, High Steward of England, was among the company. He was succeeded by his brother, Hugh, of whom It has been said:

He appears to have surpassed his fellows in acts of desertion and treachery, and to have been never more in his element than when in rebellion.

Hurrying back from Rouen, where he had been attending the dying Henry I, it was Bigod who convinced the Archbishop of Canterbury that Henry, on his deathbed, had nominated Stephen, his nephew, as his successor rather than his daughter Matilda. He did this because he saw in Stephen a weak man who could be manipulated by the barons. As soon as his expectations were proved unfounded, Bigod raised the standard of revolt at Norwich where he was besieged by Stephen and forced to surrender. With more charity than wisdom, the king pardoned the troublesome baron, who was made Earl of Norfolk in 1135. Bigod repaid him by declaring his support for Matilda in the civil war that followed and constructed two very formidable castles at Framlingham and Bungay, which were to become thorns in the side of the later Plantagenet monarchs rather than part of their military network. For most of the twelfth century, whoever might wear the crown in London, the Bigods ruled Suffolk, even after Henry II had Orford Castle built on the nearby coast to keep a watch on their foreign liaisons.

Of course, castles were not invented by Norman dukes. The idea of a fortified residence goes back a long way, and the dividing line between a communal fort, like a hillfort, designed to protect the whole community, and a private defended house or castle, is not always at all easy to define. Brochs could be considered to be the earliest form of stone castles, and not all hillforts were quite so communal. Some were built to protect the chiefs against their revolting peasants as well as their neighbours. There does at least seem to be a clear division between the walled town of post-Roman Britain or ninth-century England and private castles. But the kind of society which devotes its efforts to create a system of defence for its whole population, with an overall plan developed by a national or regional authority even if carried out locally, is not the same as one where powerful individuals are able to surround themselves with walls and barricades, as much to terrify and subjugate the local population as to protect the inmates. The appearance of the latter is the clearest archaeological sign of the form of castle introduced by the Normans.

Warwick Castle, however, often referred to as the finest medieval castle in England, was begun, as a royal castle with the ‘mound’ constructed in 914 by Queen Aethelfled of Mercia, much more related to the town’s earlier construction as a walled town, and therefore as part of a ‘burh’ of the Saxon period. Aethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, fortified the small town of Warwick and others along the borders of Mercia against the marauding Danes. She had a ditch and a simple compacted earth wall encircling the town. After the Conquest, this was partly rebuilt in stone with three gateways through it, with a possible fourth gateway at the river crossing. The Avon was a natural obstacle to anyone advancing towards Warwick from the south and although there is a natural ford, there was probably no bridge at that time. Part of the Saxon town was located on the natural outcrop of rock where the Castle now stands. A form of fortification for settlements, probably based on surviving Roman walls and known as the burh, was developed by the English, both in the Saxon kingdoms and the Danelaw. Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the Norman castle as an innovation unknown in England before 1066. It was not until 1068 when William I went to quell the rebellion in the north, that he had ‘motte and bailey’ castles built to protect his rear. The drawing below shows the development of Warwick Castle at that time.

Warwick Castle, c. 1070.
The motte was man-made, built on a solid sandstone bluff that overlooks the River Avon. On top was constructed a stockade of squared logs from trees felled in the immediate vicinity which were firmly fixed together. Inside would probably have been a tall square tower that commanded the whole of the fortification and surrounding area. In front of the mound was the bailey, surrounded by a wooden palisade that extended diagonally up either side of the mound, meeting up with the tower on the top. On the riverside against the palisade, there would have been a large timber hall with a thatched roof, a simple chapel and on the other side of the hall a kitchen, bakehouse and brewhouse. On the other side of the bailey, there were timber-framed houses for the garrison of soldiers, servants and tradesmen with stabling for horses, a blacksmith’s and an armourer’s.

There are certainly European castles outside Normandy which were built as early as the tenth century, where they were developed in various parts of France, initially as a means of defending lands against external threat, but it had proven equally useful as a means of controlling the local population. One of the best-preserved is at Langeais in Anjou, built by the wicked Count Fulk the Black. The ruins of Fulk’s castle lie on the grounds of a much later chateau famous for its tapestries. A massive stone wall stands on a large mound, pierced high up by small round-headed windows. The Norman ducal residences at Fécamp and Caen had stone walls around them and could also be seen as castles of a sort, though they are usually differentiated as fortified palaces. In England, there has been hot debate as to whether any existed before 1066. Historical sources suggest that a few were built in the time of Edward the Confessor, but these are sometimes discounted on the grounds that Edward was almost a Norman himself, with a Norman mother, who had lived in exile in Normandy for a number of years. Somehow, everything that he did is counted as foreshadowing William’s projects. However, there is some archaeological evidence to suggest that at least some Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Danish thegns were protecting their homes with earthen banks and ditches.


At Sulgrave in Northamptonshire, a late Saxon manor house preceded a Norman manor which had a defensive ringwork, but it is not clear how substantial the pre-Conquest defences were. At Goltho in Lincolnshire successive phases of the manor house, from Saxon to Norman, show an evolution of defences that began before 1066. The late Saxon buildings within the old Roman fort of Portchester in Hampshire have been interpreted as the residence of a thegn, partly because of a structure that might have been a tower. Portchester became a Norman castle, but perhaps it had already provided some of the same defensive functions earlier. The first castles in Britain provided a series of strong points that enabled the Normans to subdue a hostile population. The most common castles were earth and timber constructions, built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and stone tower-houses of the Anglo-Scottish borders and Ireland, but most of these were not built before the thirteenth century. Major stone castles were expensive, and thus the prerogative of kings and leading barons. William himself imported stone from Caen to build the White Tower in London (‘The Tower of London’), but it was only from the 1080s that towers or ‘keeps’ were increasingly built in stone. Therefore, the first ‘free-standing’ Norman garrison castles consisted of square wooden towers raised on mounds (mottes) circled with wooden fences.

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The word “Castle” comes from the French and the Latin word for ‘fortress’, but in many rural areas, many manor-houses were fortified, like Stokesay ‘Castle’ in Shropshire (right). The Anglo-Saxon word for a fortified settlement or town was ‘burh’ or ‘burgh’.
French was the main language spoken both in Norman castles and cathedrals, both of which were built to impress.

Finding a few pre-Conquest fortified houses does not alter the fact that only after 1066 was the whole country dotted with castles. Most of these were initially of the simple motte-and-bailey variety, the motte being the mound, now usually covered with grass, which had a tower on top of it, the keep. At first, most towers were built of timber and only later, in some cases, replaced with stone. Some of the mottes have been found to contain timber frameworks, foundations of the tower, suggesting that these structures were put in place first, with the earth then piled around them. The bailey was the defended courtyard or enclosure situated below and around the motte, and the whole complex was often further defended with a surrounding moat or ditch. This classic, simple type of castle was put up in its hundreds by the new lords to control their conquered lands, presumably using the forced labour of Saxon peasants. Other lords, such as at Goltho and Sulgrave, built ringworks, circular banked and ditched enclosures with a hall and other buildings inside. At Hen Domen, near Montgomery on the Welsh border (pictured below), there is a classic motte-and-bailey that has been excavated over many years. This was probably the first Montgomery Castle, built by Roger of Montgomery, one of William’s henchmen, in the years after the Conquest. In 1102 it passed to the de Boulers family. The castle controlled an important crossing over the River Severn, on a major route between England and Wales. In the thirteenth century, a new castle was built above Montgomery, but even then Hen Domen probably continued to operate as an outpost controlling the river-crossing. Most of the time anyone inside would not have been able to see out and must have felt like a prisoner.

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Aerial view of Hen Domen Castle, Powys, showing pre-Norman ridged fields surrounding the castle.

Castles had to be at least partly self-sufficient and so space had to be found for living space for the lord, his family and retainers, the garrison and craftsmen, workshops such as a smithy, a bakery, a brewhouse and food stores, including animals. All of this must have made for a crowded and unpleasant place. Such castles are unlikely to have been served by garrisons of more than a dozen men at a time, and living conditions were very primitive. Naturally, as soon as they could afford it, the wealthier Norman lords replaced timber towers with stone which often had to be brought some distance. Castle Hedingham in Essex (below) was one of the first stone keeps, built by Aubrey de Vere around 1140, using stone brought from Northamptonshire. The massive keep still stands on its mound, despite having been taken twice by siege during the reign of King John. The second-floor main hall is spanned by what is said to be the largest Norman arch in Europe. The garrison would have lived below the hall, while the family and ladies would have occupied the top floor which, except in the event of a fire, was the safest refuge. Two Norfolk castles were also built in the early Norman period, Castle Rising and Castle Acre. The former looks more like a defended hall, however, with ringed earthworks around it, and the latter began as a two-storey stone hall before 1085 but was then converted into a keep. King William built in stone from the start, beginning with the White Tower in London, followed closely by Colchester Castle, built on the foundations of a Roman temple. They were both designed as fortified palaces, like the ducal residences in Normandy.

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Castle Hedingham

Castle building changed and adapted throughout the Medieval period in response to political and military changes. Every technological development in siege warfare was countered by changes in castle design until eventually artillery rendered them obsolete. Castles would have been built anyway in Britain, even without the Norman Conquest of England, probably, as in much of Europe, as a result of the Crusades, the first of which left Normandy in 1096. The concentric Crusader castles were to provide a blueprint for many of the later Medieval castles of Britain. However, the speed with which castles were first built after 1066, and the sheer number of them, would not have happened without the imperative of military conquest. The Domesday Book records how many town-houses were laid waste or destroyed because of the castle.

The Conqueror’s Crusade – The Context for the Conquest:

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The ruins of Battle Abbey. Tradition relates that the high altar of the Abbey marked the spot where Harold planted his standards,
the Dragon of Wessex and the Fighting Man, and where he fell. The terrace and grounds of Battle Abbey School provide views of the western sector of the battlefield and of the field through which the Normans advanced to attack Harold’s position.

The year after his great victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror founded the monastery later known as Battle Abbey in thanksgiving and as an act of propitiation to the dead Harold of England. There the monks were bound to pray for the souls of both conquered and conqueror in perpetuity. William’s companions in victory and their successors were to found or rebuild many similar institutions. These monasteries or their remains are reminders of the intense awareness of other worlds amongst all sections of the community in the Middle Ages. That awareness was such that, at a time when death through disease, famine or violence was always close to hand, people believed in worlds of damnation, purgation, and bliss awaiting souls about to depart this life, and that a happier destination could be obtained through the prayers of intercession of the living for the dead.

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A section of Edward Freeman’s map.(1869). The Norman view of Senlac Ridge can be seen from Telham Hill which lies a mile (1.6K) to the southeast.

At the Battle of Senlac Hill (Hastings), William’s knights advanced under the banner of the papacy, since William had invaded England with the blessing of the Pope. In general, he worked very closely with the Church, then in the throes of the Reform movement. England was just as much conquered, in a spiritual sense, by the Reformers as it was, in a political sense, by the Norman-French. William purged the English church, deposing all but one of the Saxon bishops, the exception being Wulfstan of Worcester, who when told in Westminster Abbey to surrender his pastoral staff, laid it on the tomb of Edward the Confessor, saying he would give it up only to the man who had presented him with it. No one could move the staff until William conceded and confirmed Wulfstan in his bishopric. Wulfstan was to do much to reconcile the English to their lot by preaching that the Conquest was God’s punishment of them for their sins. By remaining Bishop of Worcester and with the help of Aethelwig, the Abbot of Evesham, Wulfstan managed to preserve much of value in the Anglo-Saxon monastic tradition. At Evesham, Aethelwig met a Norman knight called Reinfried who, in the course of the campaigns of the Conqueror in the north, had been disturbed by the ruins of St Hilda’s Abbey at Whitby, which like most of the northern abbeys had been left deserted since its sacking by the Vikings. Reinfried became a monk under Aethelwig and made friends with Aldwin of Winchcombe who, inspired by reading Bede, wanted to travel to the north. They went together and in ten years they had re-established monastic communities at Whitby, Jarrow and Monkswearmouth and also founded the great Abbey of St Mary’s at York. Aldwin later became the first prior of the monastic community set up to serve the cathedral at Durham.

But it was mainly Norman abbots who gradually took over in the monasteries. For several generations, after the Conquest, all important positions in the English Church were dominated by French-speaking Normans. Chief among these, of course, were the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Lanfranc replaced the Saxon incumbent at Canterbury, Stigand, and was then succeeded by Anselm in 1093 (see the inset below).

Romanesque Architecture – Power and Propaganda:


Just as castles were not a Norman invention, neither was Romanesque architecture. It was a style that was widespread throughout Europe, through Hungary and as far as the Black Sea and Constantinople. As its name suggests, it was descended from Roman architecture, much of which was still standing as models for medieval builders. The windows at Langeais castle are a good example of the round-headed style of brick arches, the most characteristic Romanesque feature. Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon buildings also used these features in an early, simple form, but the name is usually associated with the great buildings of the Church, abbeys and minsters, like those that William and Matilda built at Caen and Durham. The sheer scale on which the Normans built, and the sheer number of their castles and churches, was new at the beginning of the eleventh century. Their impact on England, therefore, derives from their organisation, efficiency and the wealth they had at their disposal once they had conquered the country.

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The Abbey Church of Notre Dame, Jumiéges, Normandy, was built before the Norman Conquest of England.

Like the Vikings before them, the Normans were attracted by the wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England and this motivation played a major part in the inspiration for the Conquest. This was not a poor country: in fact, it was far wealthier and more civilized than Normandy. It was famous for its embroideries, like the Bayeux Tapestry, and for its goldwork, of which only a few fragments survive to the present day. But the Normans rather despised the English for their culture, regarding them as effete and long-haired. From written accounts, it is possible to piece together an impression of the lavishness of the metalwork, textiles, sculpture and manuscripts to be found in churches and monasteries and probably in aristocratic homes as well. Anglo-Saxons seem to have preferred to work on a small scale, producing delicate ivories and fragile gold embroidery. Their churches tended to be rather small, with complicated additions in the form of towers and twisting staircases, crypts and elaborate west fronts. Buildings were often changed by such accretions, with the older parts being incorporated in the new rather than the whole thing being knocked down and built afresh. The complicated plans which may have resulted are well shown by the excavations of the Old Minster at Winchester. The plans showed lots of added towers and chapels. Such churches would have been elaborately decorated, with painted wall plaster, stained glass, gilded statues and elaborate wall hangings. Today these can only be pieced together from remnants. The pieces of metal or ivory which we prize today as masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon art would probably have seemed insignificant to a contemporary.

Illustrated page from the Benedictional of Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Abingdon in the tenth century.
This ia an especially rich manuscript, illuminated in gold as well as with paint.

In Winchester, part of the castle mound raised in 1067 lay on top of an earlier street. This street had been many times rebuilt, with stratified levels more than five feet thick showing its importance in the town’s road network. Winchester also provides us with the most dramatic example of the brutality with which ancient cathedrals and churches were pulled down and replaced. As with his castle, the Conqueror may have wanted to make a propaganda point by building an enormous, magnificent new cathedral in the ancient Royal capital of the West Saxons. The Old Minster was originally a modest building which had been extended westwards over the centuries, to a magnificent west end, built on continental models, with a throne in a raised gallery to enable the king to attend in comfort and style. The Normans had no time for this ancient, awkward building, as they saw it, so they replaced it with a cathedral of such scale that is not only the longest in England but in that respect is outclassed in Europe only by St Peter’s in Rome.

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The nave of Ely Cathedral, built circa 1100 onwards.

Not only cathedrals, but also most major churches were rebuilt after 1066, and it is only largely by chance that rare examples of simple Saxon chapels remain, to be discovered centuries later, like at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. All over England, a most ambitious building programme began within a few years of the Conquest. Between 1070 and 1100 about thirty major churches were started, some to be finished early in the next century. This is an extraordinary achievement, when the extent of castle-building and the demands of military campaigns in England and Normandy, as well as to the Holy Land, are taken into account. The building programme must have also involved considerable manpower, both skilled and unskilled. As well as the great cathedrals, many abbeys still survive, at least in part, despite the ferocity of the Henrican Dissolution. Durham, built 1092-1133, sits on a rocky peninsula in a bend of the River Wear, next to the castle, the fortress of the Prince-Bishops. When it was built it must have been a massively solid reminder of Norman domination over the once proudly independent Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, the centre of Christian learning and mission in Britain. It has been described as the crowning achievement of Romanesque architecture in England. However, Peterborough and Ely seem closer to the churches of Normandy, built out of Barnack limestone, more similar to Caen stone, which was also shipped to England for some buildings. As well as at Caen itself, the churches at Bayeux, Rouen and Mont St Michel can be easily compared with the series of great churches on the other side of La Manche. Although massive, they also have a simple, straightforward style, with tall, round pillars, round arches and aisles. Some striking resemblance between Normandy and England would be suggested by this architecture even if there were no historical records.

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The Fabric of Faith – Churches, Cathedrals & Abbeys:

In medieval Britain, practically every aspect of life was guided by the church. Acceptance of the structure of beliefs and practices of Christianity was, on the surface at least, almost universal. Except for the small urban communities of Jews, everyone was baptised soon after birth and became a member of the Catholic Church. Regular attendance at mass and confession was obligatory. The formalisation of marriage became an increasingly ecclesiastical affair from the twelfth century onwards, and burial in consecrated ground was granted to all except suicides and excommunicates who had died without being reconciled to the Church. Few people lived far from a church or a monastery, and the larger towns were dominated by church buildings. The routines of daily life were governed by church bells sounding the ecclesiastical offices, and the administrative systems of government and commerce followed calendar divisions marked by saints’ days. Saints were regarded as points of contact between heaven and earth, and thus as mediators between humans and God. Images from the lives of the saints decorated the walls, windows and interior furnishings of churches. Their virtues were celebrated on feast days. Relics of the saints, usually bones, were treasured as sacred and powerful objects, capable of working miracles, and the practice of pilgrimage to the shrines in which they were housed became the most obvious sign of popular religious devotion.

Throughout Britain and Ireland, sites that retained associations with the burial places of saints were visited by the faithful in search of healing and comfort or offering gratitude for miracles performed. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity had abounded in local saints, but the spread of the Norman Church brought something of a rationalisation. In England, popular pilgrimage sites were York, Walsingham, Beverley and Chichester. In Scotland, St Andrews and Tain, and in Wales, St Asaph and Llandaff, drew the most visitors. These popular pilgrimage sites stimulated local economic activity on a scale similar to that of modern tourist attractions. The late seventh-century division of England into bishoprics (shown on the map above), each responsible for the provision of the ministry to lay people through parish churches, was not followed in its operation across the British Isles, however. Considerable diversity of practice is noticeable in Scotland and Ireland, in contrast to Saxon England, which had always been closer to the Roman model prevailing on the Continent, particularly in the South. In Ireland, the title of ‘bishop’ was an honourary one, not necessarily denoting the tenure of a pastoral or ministerial office. Bishoprics in Anglo-Saxon England largely reflected the pre-Conquest administrative divisions of shires and survived with only minor changes after the Conquest. Each bishopric had at its centre a cathedral church that functioned as the bishop’s ‘seat’, which, even before the Conquest, might also be the governmental centre of a region, or the ‘county town’. Bishops were valued by kings as local agents of the government, partly because they were literate, but also because they were unable to found dynasties that might threaten royal authority, unlike the barons.

The parish was the basic unit of religious life. Every parish, in theory at least, had a resident priest whose responsibility it was to provide the sacraments of baptism, the eucharist, confession, marriage and extreme unction, to hold regular services and, so far as he was able, to instruct his parishioners in Christian doctrine. Since the mass was in Latin, a language of which most laypeople were ignorant, this latter function was especially important. Until the fourteenth century, however, many priests were poorly educated and unable to preach. The norm had been for them to marry and have children, but from the eleventh century this practice was regarded as an abuse by the Roman Church, so clerical celibacy became standard. The parish priest also fulfilled an important social function within the rural community, because his role gave him unrivalled access to information about relationships within the parish, he was able to act as a mediator in quarrels, as a confidant and even as a banker. As the only stone building in the community, the parish church was often a place of refuge during times of violence. Parishioners paid a tithe from their income, usually ‘in kind’ rather than money in villages, for the upkeep of the church. Payment of burial and marriage fees also became standard practice. In addition, priests offered what rudimentary education was available in the parish. At a higher level, education remained largely within the oversight of the Church. Every cathedral was supposed to maintain a school, but the quality of that education offered varied widely. Most schools provided elementary teaching in Latin grammar, but it wasn’t until the early thirteenth century that the school at Oxford began to attract teachers and students from the new university of Paris, thus becoming a university itself.

The degree of change in church architecture following the Conquest has sometimes been exaggerated. What happened to the Old Minster at Winchester was not duplicated for Saxon churches throughout England. In recent decades it has become clear that there are many more surviving Saxon structures than once thought. In 1978, 267 churches were listed, identified from structural analysis and visible architectural detail as at least partly Anglo-Saxon. Since then, many more have been added to the list. Little remains of the earliest churches, since these were built mainly of timber and have survived only as post-holes under later excavated churches, such as at Rendlesham in Suffolk (above), but these often show Scandinavian influence, which makes them difficult to date accurately. A better idea of a Saxon church is seen in Escomb in County Durham, as shown in the photo below. The simple two-celled building still sits in its round churchyard, now in the middle of a housing estate. It was at one time larger, with a western annexe and a side chapel to the north of the nave, but its classic simplicity makes it a model for the reconstruction of early Saxon churches. The proportions of the nave and the sides of the chancel arch, which are tall and narrow, are identifiable features of Saxon architecture. Parts of the church may have been transported whole from the nearby Roman fort at Binchester, together with much of the stone used. Roman sites were often used in this way by later builders. The original windows are small, narrow and round-headed, with intentionally splayed openings designed to reflect as much light as possible from the small space. Their size was probably for economy in the use of glass, or – if they were unglazed – in an attempt to cut down the draught. The broader windows were added later.

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The majority of churches defined as Saxon belong to a later period than Escomb, to the tenth or early eleventh centuries, when there was much rebuilding after the Viking destruction. However, some of these churches do seem to have complex histories and parts of the ‘late’ Saxon churches may belong to an earlier date. Apart from those already listed for Escomb, features of later churches include narrow applied strips of stone, called pilaster strips, which seem to be purely decorative features and have been explained as stone versions of familiar patterns of half-timbering. Some of these details can be traced in contemporary architecture on the Continent, though stylistic arguments about these apparent similarities are often impossible to resolve, due to the paucity of evidence on both sides of the Channel. Saxon churches often have some distinct visible features which first provoked their investigation and led to their identification as pre-Conquest. Others have proved to have equally long histories, and similar quantities of surviving Saxon fabric, but this has been difficult to recognise because the early walls were covered by plaster inside and concrete rendering outside, leaving only much later windows and doors visible. In recent decades, a new approach to investigating such churches has involved removing plaster where possible to examine the stone beneath, so that many more churches with Saxon origins continue to be discovered. In many cases, the original Saxon church has been replaced piecemeal over the centuries, so that its original shape has become fossilised in the later versions. Sometimes medieval builders built around an ancient church, reproducing its shape exactly, only larger, and pulling down the older fabric only when they had finished the new so that the congregation always had some kind of roof over their heads. Many of the smaller churches of England were probably not destroyed by the Normans so much as by the great Victorian rebuilding. Many people would have worshipped in the same church, built by their ancestors, in the period after 1066, as before.

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A chapel of Norwich Cathedral, a new foundation of the Normans that exhibits the Romanesque style in its purest form.

At the same time, however, many of the products of Anglo-Saxon culture went forever. Some treasures were taken away by the cartload to adorn family homes in Normandy. Of course, there had always been inter-cultural traffic across the Channel, but it had been two-way. Charlemagne and his successors in the Holy Roman Empire had recruited scholars from English monasteries and refugees, including most famously, St Dunstan, the Wessex royal family in the time of Cnut, and Edward the Confessor. At those levels of society, the Norman aristocratic takeover may well have benefited Britain’s contacts with the mainstream of European culture, more by accident than design, but it is more likely that, at lower levels of English society, Anglo-Saxon culture was set back for generations, if not for longer. In order to provide the splendid settings for the celebration of the liturgy and to exalt their hierarchy in the eyes of the laity, the Reformers built cathedrals and churches of a scale and ambition unknown in Britain since the fall of the Roman Empire. Their model was the gigantic Abbey Church of Cluny, the Benedictine monastery in Burgundy, the chief centre of the Reform movement which had taken firm root in Normandy. Unusually by continental practice, several of the Anglo-Saxon cathedrals had been run by monks rather than by canons. As part of their reorganisation of the English church, the Reformers changed not only many of the ‘sees’ into growing centres of population as when they moved the bishopric of Norfolk from Thetford and North Elmham to Norwich, but also made new cathedrals, like Norwich, and older cathedrals, like Winchester, monastic foundations, confident that the monks would be more rigorous proponents and interpreters of the new ideas and practices than the old ‘secular’ clergy were, in their eyes.

Kilpeck, Herefordshire. The door to this small church which contains some of the most important sculpture of the early twelfth century. Celtic, Nordic and older indigenous symbols are brought together here in a remarkable synthesis. Note the chevron device with the tree of life in the tympanum.

To carry out their ambitious building plans the Norman prelates and reformers had to turn to masons and sculptors in whose numbers genius flourished, often anonymously, to an exceptional degree at this period. With their skills, the atmosphere of holiness was more developed through the creation of beauty than grandeur. In smaller churches, the attention of the sculptors was largely devoted to the door and the porch: it was here in the Middle Ages that marriages were celebrated and funeral services were conducted and the door itself symbolised entry into higher worlds of angels and of God and his saints in glory. Sometimes, as at Kilpeck (above), the column shafts of the doors are twisted with tentacular vegetation in which men, animals and centaurs writhe, depicting the synthesis of indigenous religious symbolism rather than continental Romanesque forms. Viking dragon heads stick out from high in the west wall with a series of figures and heads carved in frieze under the eaves, recalling the Celtic cult of the severed head. One of these figures is of a woman displaying her vulva on giving birth. Examples of these figures, a survival of the cult of the Great Goddess, are not unusual, especially in Ireland.

Malmesbury, Wiltshire. The richly carved south porch of the abbey church with its bands of panels.

Sometimes, as at Malmesbury Abbey, the door surrounds were carved both with the cycle of months, depicting the round of life for the largely rustic population, and with the signs of the zodiac whose symbols showed the action of higher celestial causes upon human affairs, alternated with vegetative ornament and interlinked lozenges. Sometimes the tympanum above the door shows Christ with censing angels; sometimes a knight rides down a monster, piercing it with his lance, showing the triumph of good over evil. More often the vocabulary of the ornament is more simple, more ancient in its origins and more powerful. The surrounds of the doors are covered in series of chevron or zigzag patterns which are as old, in the British Isles at least, as the carvings at New Grange, shown below:

Often ferocious heads with beaks of teeth and tongues protruding to devour the band of stone beneath them recall teeth and tongues the demon hounds of Anglo-Saxon folklore or the Fenris wolves of Nordic mythology, such as at St Germans in Cornwall, the ancient see of the peninsula removed by the Normans to the alien jurisdiction of Exeter. To St Germans the masons took the blue Elvan stone from the quarries of Landrake to carve the beautiful door over which the green pleurococcus grows, making a bright contrast with the colour of the stone. The contrast between the old and the new religions is shown most interestingly at Avebury church, where the basic image of the Avebury stone circle is carved together with the image of a bishop piercing a serpent; a few miles away, at Winterbourne Monkton, the font has the figure of the Great Mother giving birth to the vegetation of the earth. Where the greater churches are concerned, it is the Roman influence that is most easily discerned at first. The form of early Christian churches derived from the Roman basilica, a secular type of building devised for administration and the courts; the rites of the Romans, involving sacrifices and fires as they did, required that they should be performed out of doors and the interiors of their temples, apart from holding the images of the gods, were not as important as the exteriors. Partly because of the early years of persecution of Christianity in Britain, and the need for privacy, Christian ritual was conducted indoors and this meant that as populations grew, especially in towns or where there were much-frequented shrines, there was a need to provide even greater areas of enclosed and weather-proofed space.

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The Norman Church at Iffley, Oxfordshire, was built in the continental Romanesque style. It appears almost Saxon in style and scale. Norman churches were usually much larger and more imposing than those built before the Conquest.

Some of the smaller churches were also partly or entirely rebuilt, in addition to many new ones being founded. Melbourne in Derbyshire, Christchurch Priory in Dorset, and Iffley in Oxfordshire are all good examples. Saxon doorways and window arches sometimes survive in these when all else has gone, although not always in their original position, and often alongside more elaborate Norman doorways whose sculpture is reminiscent of Norse styles. It seems obvious that this tremendous outburst of the building was kick-started by the military conquest, but not all the physical evidence suggests that the architectural similarities between the two sides of the Channel were brought about by a complete and violent conquest of one side by the other. The very fact that the last ruling member of the Royal House of Wessex, Edward the Confessor, was half-Norman, and that it was he who built the most treasured of England’s ecclesiastical jewels, Westminster Abbey, completed just in time for his funeral, is a reminder that a revolution in building in stone was already underway before the Conquest. Although much of the original Abbey was pulled down and replaced in the thirteenth century, we can still get an idea of its appearance from the Bayeux tapestry. It seems very much like some of the Abbeys of Normandy which Edward would have seen during his twenty-year exile there. The building of the Abbey may very well have been supervised by Norman architects, part of the rebuilding of church architecture which had begun in the late tenth century, after the Viking raids, and had continued unbroken under Cnut.

Reformers, Masons & Monks:


At the time of the Norman Conquest, there grew up a deliberate policy of trying to match and even outdo the Romans in building projects: the masons and architects who travelled as widely as did their clerical and noble patrons had plenty of opportunities to see great numbers of largely intact or largely preserved Roman buildings both in England and further abroad. They adopted the round column forms of classical temple architecture and also the piers and arches of great Roman aqueducts for the interiors of the great churches, sometimes using the one form entirely, as with the columns of Gloucester and Tewksbury cathedrals, and some times alternating them as at Durham (above). The effect of bringing the outdoors inside and of combining them to non-classical rules of proportions, however, is entirely un-Roman and innovative. The effect is to bring indoors the Nordic, the Saxon and the Celtic elemental forms. At Gloucester, though no traces now remain, the gigantic columns were once painted with patterns of vegetation in vivid greens and yellows. At Durham, not only did they paint the columns in red and black, but they carved the columns with the chevron, spiral and lozenge patterns of the Great Goddess (shown below).

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Durham: The interior of the nave showing the alternation of round and shafted piers. The lozenge and chevron patterns on the round piers are both designs of great antiquity, going back as far as the pagan times of the patterns on the stone at New Grange, c. 3300 BC (pictured above).

But the masons and the sculptors of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries were not secret supporters of the old religion. Although rites and superstitions survived, the craftsmen worked too closely with the clergy, the chief enemies of paganism, for them to have had any such affiliations. What has to be understood first of all is that these masons were artists and therefore both interpreters and transcenders of their epoch. To enter the nave at Durham and to look at those columns and piers is to enter at once into the world of time and energy of their particular epoch. In the forty years, from 1093 to 1133, that was taken in the building of these great columns and the vaulting they support, Jerusalem was taken for Christianity and north-western Europe had expanded to a point unsurpassed since the Celtic migrations of the fourth century BC. This led to a revival of legends, myths and symbols from the Celtic past and was included in the Christian stones of the new abbeys and cathedrals. In many ways, this was a renaissance of Celtic and early Saxon Christianity, as it had existed before the takeover by the Roman Church in the sixth century. Finally, the two traditions were intertwining. Irish Romanesque, in its late flowering and transitional period, produced some of the best work in this style, possibly because it was free from Anglo-Norman patronage. With its subtlety of interlace ornament, its lighthearted and fantastic monsters, and the purity of its line, examples of the style can be found in the length and breadth of Ireland, often in ruined and roofless churches like Clonfert, now a cathedral, and originally the sixth-century foundation of St Brendan the Navigator.

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St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

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Besides the great Romanesque and Gothic abbeys of the eleventh century, we must look at some of the smaller monuments of the Reform Movement, like the tiny chapel built by Margaret of Scotland, now standing on a rampart of Edinburgh Castle (above). As we have seen, she was descended from the kings of Wessex and Hungary’s Arpád dynasty and married Malcolm Canmore, the Scots’ monarch who united Scotland with the help of Hungarian noblemen and Norman adventurers. Margaret invited the Benedictine Order to establish a monastery in Dunfermline, Fife in 1072 and established ferries at Queensferry and North Berwick to assist pilgrims journeying from south of the Firth of Forth to St. Andrews in Fife. She used a cave on the banks of the Tower Burn in Dunfermline as a place of devotion and prayer. Among other deeds, Margaret instigated the restoration of Iona Abbey. She is also known to have interceded for the release of fellow English exiles who had been forced into serfdom by the Norman conquest of England.

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Image of Saint Margaret in a window in her chapel at Edinburgh Castle.

Throughout medieval Christendom, a proportion of people found the ministry of the ‘secular church’ an inadequate answer to their spiritual needs. For these people, living within a monastic community was the solution. The early British monasteries were of two types, one unique to the ‘Celtic’ kingdoms and the other conforming to the continental pattern. Monasteries in Gaelic Ireland were inspired by the early ascetic traditions of Egypt and Palestine. They imposed a harsh code of self-denial on the monks, and their communities tended to be in locations that emphasised solitude and remoteness. Irish missionaries who founded the early monasteries in Scotland, based on the one at Iona, brought these same ideas with them. Although the Celtic influence was still strong in northern England at the beginning of the eleventh century, from the seventh century onwards monasticism in all the English kingdoms tended to be based on the Benedictine rule, written in about 550. The first purely Benedictine houses in Britain were at Hexham (below) and Ripon, founded by St Wilfred of York in the late seventh century, but Benedictine ideas were also adopted from the abbeys in France and were current in English monasteries by this time. The location of English monasteries, moreover, was determined more by association with local saints than by ideals of remoteness. Thus, monastic communities had evolved at places such as St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, around the shrines of their saints and martyrs.

By the tenth century, monasticism in England had become so lax that a major reform initiative was required. A great wave of monastic reform spread throughout Europe from the abbey at Cluny, in Burgundy. It reached England in 1077, with the founding of a Cluniac priory at Lewis in Sussex. The religious order most favoured by William and his sons was that of Cluny. The two most notable sites of the Cluniac foundation are both in Norfolk, at Thetford and Castle Acre. After the Norman Conquest, other reforming ideas spread from the Continent and passed easily into England, and huge numbers of new foundations were established in the early twelfth century, many of them for women. One new order, founded by Gilbert of Semprigham, combined monks and nuns in ‘double houses’. This new model of monasticism was a peculiarly British contribution to the reform movement and, especially among the Cistercians and the Gilbertines, led to the opening of doors to the humble and illiterate who desired the monastic life. Except for the Gilbertines, all the new orders introduced in the twelfth century; the Premonstratensions and Victorines, the Tironensians, the Carthusians, the Augustinians and the Cistercians, were all of foreign origin.

The most enduring of the new orders were the Cistercians, founded at Citeaux in Burgundy in 1098 by monks who wanted to revive the purity and simplicity of early Benedictine monasticism. Acting from the highest spiritual ideals, Bernard of Clairvaux gave them a new release of energy already tapped by the Normans in their expansion around Europe. From their first foundation at Waverley in 1128, they spread rapidly throughout Britain.

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Castle Acre, Norfolk: Romanesque arcades inside the west front of the Cluniac Abbey Church.
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The Augustinians equalled the Cistercians in the number of their houses and in their complement of members. Their canons, founded at the beginning of the twelfth century, supplemented the work of parish priests by combining extra external ministry with the cloistered life. In the reign of Henry I, Matilda, his queen, daughter of Malcolm III and Margaret of Scotland, founded the house of Holy Trinity in Aldgate and his court jester Rahere founded St Bartholemew’s Smithfield. This great Romanesque church survives next to the ancient hospital of the same name which was originally part of the foundation. Henry I also handed over to them what was to become their richest abbey, in Cirencester, where they also built the splendid parish church for the townspeople.

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Dryburgh, the Borders. A view of the crossing showing the north transept of this famous Premonstratensian house.

Between them, the new orders had a profound effect on the political and historical development, the landscape and the agriculture of the British Isles. The Premonstratensians came from Prémontré, just outside Laon, and formed communities of priests or nuns who followed a less strict rule than that of the monks and were allowed more contact with the world outside their monasteries and nunneries. They were particularly important to Scotland, founding among their great houses the Border house of Dryburgh and also reviving the holy site of St. Ninian’s white church at Whithorn. These new foundations were sometimes made at the expense of the original Celtic orders, however. Bishop Robert of St Andrews, with the agreement of David I ( reigned 1124-53), dispossessed the Celtic monks or ‘Culdees’ at St Andrew’s in order to place the most sacred relics in Scotland in the care of the Austin canons. Bishop Robert had been the prior of the Augustinian house at Scone, and he built on the promontory of St Andrews the church dedicated to St Regulus or St Rule, the Syrian monk who, according to legend, had brought the bones of St Andrew to Scotland in the fourth century.

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The main purpose of the monastery remained the contemplation and worship of God within the abbey walls. Although most monasteries probably remained poor, the wealth of a few, especially those, like Westminster, that enjoyed royal patronage, had given monasticism a bad image by the later middle ages. The Cistercian order remained wholly different in spirit from the Augustinians’ wealth and political influence, however. Because they favoured remote and uncultivated sites, the Cistercian monks were attracted to northern England, Scotland and Wales. The economy of Cistercian monasticism was based typically on sheep farming, but they also farmed coastal marshlands and woodlands. What mattered most was that it should be land that was not wanted by anyone else, and therefore not part of the system of feudal obligations imposed by the barons and under-tenants. The Cistercians exploited their far-flung estates by means of ‘granges’, model farms operated by conversi, or lay brothers, who supervised paid labourers. Most granges were established in the twelfth century, the great era of Cistercian expansion, and by the end of that century, Yorkshire alone had forty-six of them, averaging 188 hectares each (464 acres). In upland rural districts, such as in Wales, where the land might be barren, granges might be ten times the size, and parishes might be far apart and ill-equipped, so monasteries had always provided pastoral ministry. Scottish Cistercian monasteries operated a whole ‘mission field’ across southwest Scotland.

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A Benedictine Monastery.

Although the first Cistercian house in England was at Waverley in Surrey, founded in 1128, it was the founding of Rievaulx in Yorkshire in 1132 that gave the great impetus to the development of Cistercianism in the British Isles. This led shortly to the founding of Fountains Abbey, the story of which contains much in it that reveals the inner spirit of the Cistercian ideal. Thirteen monks at the rich abbey of St Mary’s York, including the prior of the abbey, were disturbed by the laxity and the luxury of their life there under their elderly and kind Abbot Geoffrey, who could not at all understand their longing for a sterner and a more frugal discipline. They found the large meals there difficult to resist and yet a constant reproof to their own weakness. Thurstan, the Archbishop of York, was sympathetic to these monks, but when he tried to intervene the abbot refused him entry to the chapter-house. Thurstan laid the abbey under interdict and he, together with the monks, shut themselves up in the abbey church, afterwards escaping to Thurstan’s palace where they were under his protection.

The ruins of the once magnificent Rievaulx Abbey.

Thurstan took them with him for Christmas 1132 and gave them a grant of Skeldale. They erected wooden huts under a great elm tree, where they lived in terrible hardship during the early days of the building of the abbey. The abundance of springs and streams in the neighbourhood gave the abbey its name of Fountains. The land was entirely uncultivated and the sufferings of the monks from cold and hunger were intense. In 1333, having elected Richard as their abbot, they wrote to Bernard asking to be received into the Cistercian order. He not only agreed but sent one of the senior monks of Clairvaux to instruct them in the Cistercian rule. The fortunes of the abbey turned for the better in 1135 when the Dean of York resigned his benefice to join them as a monk, bringing with him money, lands and books. The community quickly attracted so many new recruits that in fifteen years it was able to send out ninety monks to found six new monasteries in England and one in Norway. Though most of the buildings at Fountains Abbey are now roofless, including the abbey church, so much remains of the walls of the monastic complex that it is one of the finest sites for appreciating all the various sides of medieval monastic life. The abbeys of Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland in North Yorkshire are among the most celebrated monastic sites in England. Among the daughter houses of Rievaulx was the greatest of the Scottish border abbeys, Melrose, established at the request of David I, in the place where Aidan had first founded a monastery. The Cistercians spread also to Wales, where among the remains of their work are the abbeys of Strata Florida and Valle Crucis. The first of their foundations in Wales is the most famous, Tintern (below), founded in 1131 beside the River Wye.

The Fabric of Saxo-Norman Everyday Life:

Castles, cathedrals, abbeys and churches are, however, only half the story, and we still need to see what the landscape and archaeological evidence tells us about the fate of ordinary Anglo-Saxons, and what effect the invasion had on the fabric of everyday life. In the north of England, many villages do seem to have been entirely re-planned, or built from scratch, during the twelfth century. It might be that earlier settlements had been destroyed either by Danes or that their new Norman lords might have wanted tidy nucleated villages, with the stone church and manor house at the centre, in place of earlier displaced and sprawling farms and hamlets. Certainly, some quite drastic reorganisation took place in an attempt to impose, or re-impose, feudal discipline. However, in East Anglia, there is a discernible continuity in the archaeological record. Pottery was still being made in some quantity, with kilns in several eastern towns, such as Thetford, Norwich and Ipswich, making the hard grey sandy pottery known as Thetford ware. There were also other types of pottery, some more elegant, from different parts of England, some still hand-made. Taken together, this pottery is known as Saxo-Norman ware and dates from the mid-tenth to the mid-twelfth centuries. It spans the Conquest neatly with no discernible break in style, production or distribution. According to this important indicator, the Norman Conquest did not result in a dislocation of trade and industry.

Another important source of archaeological information is coinage. Edward the Confessor’s coins were thin silver pennies, struck at more than sixty mints, with the bust of the king on one side, together with his name and title, and the name of the mint and the moneyer on the other. The design was changed at regular intervals and people had to bring in their old coins to be exchanged for new ones. Although a complicated system, it seemed to work well. When Harold became king, he ordered a new coinage in his own name, and William did the same. Ironically, perhaps, his bust (below) looked rather similar to Harold’s (above), and the names of the moneyers stamped on the coins stayed the same.

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In fact, both the coins and the system of minting remained the same under all three kings, through all the upheavals of 1066. Coins, like pottery, are Saxo-Norman, without either a stylistic or organisational break, in the mid-eleventh century. Even as late as the reign of Henry I, the majority of moneyers still had Anglo-Saxon names. Styles of dress and ornament didn’t change much either, apart from the short haircuts favoured by Normans, who thought the Saxons effete, with their long hair. As throughout the later Saxon and early medieval periods in general, no great quantity of small metal artefacts has been found. The strap-ends and brooches of the eleventh to twelfth centuries are not sufficiently numerous for any real argument to be based upon them.

Late Saxon silver disc brooches with elaborate animal ornament, found by a grave-digger in Norfolk in the late 1970s.

The upper classes may have lived in castles, but so far as we can tell the ordinary townsfolk and peasants went on living in the same types of houses they had lived in before, assuming that it had not been burnt down by the occupying armies of the Conquest period, or by their new lords. Changes in rural housing came only much later, in the centuries after the eleventh, when more solid buildings with stone walls or stone foundations replaced more fragile timber cottages. In towns, stone houses were built in the early twelfth century, and a few of these survive, like Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds, now a museum. In Norwich part of a house was recently excavated from a riverside site. But these are few and far between, and their relationship to Jews is probably due to the fact that only wealthy people, such as merchants and moneylenders, could afford to build in stone or had the need for the security provided by stone walls to protect that wealth and to protect their families from pogroms. There may also in any case have been stone buildings in towns before the Conquest, other than churches. The castle at Winchester seems to have been built on the site of a previous masonry building, and a large stone hall, probably ninth-century, has recently been excavated in Northampton. The property boundaries within towns also show a marked degree of continuity, even to the present day. At York and Durham, excavation has shown that there is an uninterrupted sequence in the layout of streets, houses and plots from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. Within towns, the building of castles and ecclesiastical complexes certainly caused much dislocation and destruction, but street patterns and building plots remained much as they had been.

Anglo-Saxon houses changed little during the Conquest period.
Reconstructions at West Stow in Suffolk.

The Languages of the Conquest Period in England:

William’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, an act of triumph, signalled the condition of England for the next two hundred years. He was crowned in a ceremony that used both English and Latin. He himself spoke only Norman French and though he tried to learn English at the age of forty-three he was apparently too busy to keep it up. The Norman kings who followed him were equally totally ignorant of English until Henry I, who had an Anglo-Scottish wife. He was the exception in being able to speak some English. So from 1066, there were three languages in play in England and several dialects of English and Anglo-Danish. In upper-class circles, it was no doubt the fashionable thing to speak French, but the overwhelming majority of ordinary English people experienced the humiliation of linguistic separation: religion, law, science, literature were all conducted in languages other than English, to which words like felony, perjury, attorney, bailiff and nobility testify. Going by the written record alone, the supremacy of Norman French and Latin seems to have been total. Yet it was not until 1154 that the monks who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle abandoned their work, as the extract below shows. A great silence seems to descend on English writing and documentary evidence in the vernacular. As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms.

The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE.
A word-for-word translation is given below.
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*children’s mass day = Holy Innocents’ Day, 28 December. *twelfth mass eve = Twelfth Night, Eve of Epiphany, 5 January. *twelfth mass day = Epiphany, 6 January. *St Michael’s Day, 28 September.

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends. The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what marks the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into Middle English.

Left: Harold was the last king of England to speak English as his native language for three hundred and fifty years. Right: The Bayeux Tapestry was a masterpiece of Saxon artistry telling the story of the Conquest. The Latin words used above the pictures also provide useful linguistic evidence.

After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the north-eastern Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the independence of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the prestige language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. French was established as the smart tongue for everyday use and Latin as the professional language, but though French had cultural and social prestige, Latin remained the principal language of religion and learning. Yet the use of French in England was probably natural to only an élite of churchmen and magnates. The continuity of the English language in the mouths of the mass of ordinary folk was never in doubt.

There are two main reasons why English survived and was not absorbed into the dominant Norman tongue within a century of the initial invasion. The first and most obvious was that the pre-Conquest Old English vernacular, both written and spoken, was simply too well established, too vigorous and, thanks to its fusion with Danish, too colloquial to be obliterated. It was one thing for the written record to become Latin and French (writing was the skilled monopoly of church-educated clerks), but it would have needed many centuries of French rule to eradicate it as the popular speech of ordinary people. The English speakers had an overwhelming demographic advantage and were not going to stop speaking English to each other simply because they had been conquered by foreigners. Second, the English language survived because, almost immediately, the Normans began to intermarry with the native population. Of course, in the first generation, there were bound to be deep divisions within society. There is a document dating from around 1100 addressed by Henry I to all his faithful people, both French and English, in Herefordshire, appealing for ‘the King’s Peace’ to prevail. But a hundred years after the invasion, a chronicler wrote that:

The two nations have become so mixed that it is scarcely possible today, speaking of free men, to tell who is English and who is of Norman race.

There is plenty of early twelfth-century evidence of peaceful co-existence between Norman overlords and English subjects. There were French towns alongside the English ones at Norwich and Nottingham, as well as French quarters in London and Southampton. The historian Ordericus Vitalis provides good evidence of the decline of French in an educated society, both courtly and clerical. The son of a Norman knight and an English mother, Ordericus was born less than a decade after the Conquest near Shrewsbury and was taught Latin by a local priest. At the age of ten, he was sent to continue his education in a monastery in Normandy. There, he wrote (in Latin), like Joseph in Egypt, I heard a language which I did not know. In other words, he knew no French.

How the Land was Held:

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Hadingham was a typical village of the English Midlands where the soil was well-suited to growing corn. The arable land had been greatly extended, though, in Norman times, Hadingham was still surrounded by woodland. The plan shows that the fields were divided into acre-strips, one furlong in length and four rods in width (1 rod= 5+ yards). A furlong (‘furrow long’) was the distance a man could plough a straight furrow. The strips of the villagers were scattered about in order to ensure fair shares of fertile, fallow, and wet or weedy land. The Lord of the Manor had agreed to protect the villagers during the time of the Danish invasions if they would protect them. They were his ‘tenants’ and owed various services (‘dues’) to him by working on his land, or demesne. He held several manors bestowed on him, after the Conquest, by King William himself, to whom he was the tenant.

Much of the visible fabric of Anglo-Saxon England was still to be seen in Norman England. The Anglo-Saxon system of administration also continued in use. We know a great deal about this, partly from the documents of pre-Conquest England: law codes, charters, wills, letters and so on. We also have the Domesday Book, which although drawn up by the Norman king, twenty years after the Conquest began, records the state of the country ‘in the time of King Edward’ and ‘now’, i.e. 1066 and 1086, so that it describes both pre-and post-Conquest conditions. It is, in fact, principally an Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Danish document, building on earlier documents, as well as oral testimony, and it does not attempt to introduce anything new, but to explain exactly who owned what, by what right they held it, and what dues were owed. William wanted to know exactly what his kingdom added up to and to make sure that he was receiving all the taxes owed to him, but he was not trying to introduce new forms of taxation. Some features of Anglo-Saxon law were altered: the position of women, for example, was drastically downgraded by the Conquest. They lost the right to own property independently of fathers or husbands, something not recovered until an Act of Parliament in 1882. But a great many of the pre-Conquest laws were retained.

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From the Manorial assessments in Domesday, it’s apparent that most of the magnates did not depend on royal patronage for their continuing tenure, but by keeping the peace on their lands, chiefly by respecting the pre-Conquest rights of their tenants, and managing their manors and estates diplomatically, especially in their relations with neighbouring magnates. There is also evidence of greater stratification among the landowning classes, with many examples of sub-tenanting of manors and more flexible arrangements where the management of freemen was concerned. For example, in the case of the Goulafriére/ Golafre family in Suffolk, this may have been due to their desire (at least initially) to continue to maintain and manage lands in Normandy, under Duke Robert. Under the Conqueror’s eldest son, Guillaume de Goulafriére fought in the First Crusade which left Normandy in 1096. His estates in England passed to his son, Roger, who was Lord of Oakenhill Hall Manor in the reign of Henry II. The main branches of the family are documented as holding lands in East Anglia, especially Suffolk, and Essex, between Domesday (1086) and 1273. There are also references to the family name, or variants of it, in court records for Sussex, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Twentieth-century map of Suffolk. Most of its settlements other than Ipswich, Felixstowe and Lowestoft, have changed little since Domesday.

In Suffolk, where Copinger’s 1905 book helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, we find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Eadith (the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, who was the father of Eadith). Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded his faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was in fact the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

The other manor, also thirty acres, was originally held by Siric, another freeman. Robert Malet was the tenant-in-chief in 1086, but Stigand was the under-tenant. Whether or not this was the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, whose uncanonical appointment was one justification given by the Pope for his support for William, we cannot be sure. Although he died in 1072, Stigand’s significant land tenure is still recorded in Domesday in his name, and we know that he continued to hold manors in Elmham and Ashingdon in Essex, where he had been the Bishop of Norfolk, even after he was deposed by William in 1070. It seems that here at least, the Saxon freehold may well have survived the Conquest since William was not strong enough (at first) to remove Stigand. Domesday is, therefore, a very good monument to the Norman Conquest, precisely because it is a monument to Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals how the basic structure of government, land ownership and society as a whole was essentially the same after twenty years as it had been in the time of King Edward. But it also, at the same time, records the extent of destruction and devastation which occurred and reveals how many of the landlords’ names had changed from Anglo-Saxon or Danish to Norman-French or Breton. Such changes need to be treated with caution, however, as they do not always mean a change in identity: the lesser thegns, freemen and burghers may have taken to calling their children by Norman Christian names, such as Robert or Roger, but they could still have been Anglo-Saxon or Danish. And the unfree peasants still worked the fields and paid taxes, whatever names their lords had.

The Norman Conquest is a good example of a military invasion and conquest which, like the Roman Conquest a thousand years earlier, did leave physical remains in the archaeological record. But, unlike the Roman Conquest, much of the fabric of everyday life in England did survive the coming of the Normans. There was no change in religion, burial rites, house types, jewellery or pottery. The basic population remained the same, so analysis of skeletons does not show a dramatic change in type. Only in the way castles were sited and built and in the drastic rebuilding of religious monuments do we have unequivocal evidence of invasion and occupation. These are the kind of changes that would need to be demonstrated in a prehistoric context before it would be justifiable to speak in terms of a wholesale successful conquest of England, let alone of the other kingdoms and principalities of the British Isles. Whatever the changes in the artefactual remains show between Roman, post-Roman, Saxon and medieval periods, we may still be looking at the same basic population ‘stock’, which adapted over centuries to changes in climate, technology, or the demands of native or foreign ruling dynasties.

The present-day population of the British Isles is a great mixture of constant newcomers, complicating and usually strengthening that mixture. But there is also a great underlying thread of continuity with the earliest farmers, if not with the people who built the megaliths. Archaeology does provide a great deal of information, and we certainly know far more about the distant past now than we knew half a century ago, partly through the addition of genetic testing and careful linguistic analysis, besides what we are unable to glean from often scarce written records. But the answers to our varied questions are not always obvious, and we sometimes have to rid ourselves of our preconceptions in order to arrive at them. One of these is that all change results from invasions and conquests, and another is that change always equals discontinuity.

(For sources, see chapter one.)

One thought on “The End of Saxon England? Revisiting the Norman Conquest, 1035-1135: Chapter II – Castles, Abbeys, Cathedrals & Churches.

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