Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Norman Conquest of 1066-70, according to the great nineteenth-century historian Edward Freeman, “so far from being the beginning of our national history, … was the temporary overthrow of our national being” under the assault of Norman-French influences.[1] Two hundred years later, Englishness had revived – but in a different form from its pre-Conquest, Anglo-Saxon variety. 

     The conqueror died in 1087. By that time, the mood in England was one of almost unrelieved gloom. As Monk Edmer of Canterbury wrote: "How many of the human race have fallen on evil days! The sons of kings and dukes and the proud ones of the land are fettered with manacles and irons, and in prison and in gaol. How many have lost their limbs by the sword or disease, have been deprived of their eyes, so that when released from prison the common light of the world is a prison for them! They are the living dead for whom the sun - mankind's greatest pleasure - now has set. Blessed are those who are consoled by eternal hope; and afflicted are the unbelieving, for, deprived of all their goods and also cut off from heaven, their punishment has now begun..."[2]

     For some time, the more sensitive of the English felt that they were indeed “cut off from heaven”, having lost their inheritance in the Orthodox Church and kingdom. Thus an anonymous English poet wrote in the early twelfth century: "The teachers are lost, and many of the people, too."[3] Later, less religious generations of English have also felt that much was lost as a result of “1066 and all that”. As Harriet Harvey Wood writes, “one fact is undisputed: it wiped out overnight a civilisation that, for its wealth, its political arrangements, its arts, its literature and its longevity, was unique in Dark Age Europe, and deserves celebration. In the general instability, lawlessness and savagery of the times, Anglo-Saxon England stood out as a beacon.”[4]

     The first major change was that the English Orthodox Autocracy was replaced by a feudal monarchy. R.H.C. Davies explains that the feudal monarchy was “a New Leviathan, the medieval equivalent of a socialist state. In a socialist state, the community owns, or should own, the means of production. In a feudal monarchy, the king did own all the land – which in the terms of medieval economy might fairly be equated with the means of production. 

     “The best and simplest example of a feudal monarchy is to be found in England after the Norman Conquest. When William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwineson at the battle of Hastings (1066), he claimed to have established his legitimate right to succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England, but, owing to Harold’s resistance, he was also able to claim that he had won the whole country by right of conquest. Henceforward, every inch of land was to be his, and he would dispose of it as he though fit. As is well known, he distributed most of it to his Norman followers, but he did not give it to them in absolute right…

     “Apparently as the result of one day's fighting (14 October, 1066), England received a new royal dynasty, a new aristocracy, a virtually new Church, a new art, a new architecture and a new language.”[5]

     The Conqueror’s ownership of the land was established in Domesday Book, which thereby became the record of the day of doom of the Orthodox Christian autocracy in the West. As Neveux writes, “Like Christ on the Day of Judgement examining the actions of all men, the King of England would know all the inhabitants and all the properties in his kingdom… No other document of this kind has been preserved in Western Europe, nor was any ever made…”[6]

     “Domesday was a good word for it,” writes Melvyn Bragg. “Twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, William sent out his officers to take stock of his kingdom. The monks of Peterborough were still recording the events of history in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and they noted, disapprovingly, that not one piece of land escaped the survey, ‘not even an ox or a cow or a pig’. William claimed all. 

     “There are two volumes of the Domesday Book (one called Little Domesday, the return from East Anglia) and they show how complete the Norman takeover of English land was and how widespread their influence and their language. Half the country was in the hands of just one hundred and ninety men. Half of that was held by just eleven men.”[7]

     “By the time the date for Domesday Book was compiled in 1086,” writes Marc Morris, “the elite had been almost completely wiped out: of the 500 or so top individuals listed in the survey as tenants of the king, only 13 had English names, and of 7,000 or so subtenants, no more than 10 percent were natives. The aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England had been almost completely swept away – killed in battle, driven into exile or forced to exist in suppressed circumstances.”[8]

     Harriet Harvey Wood writes: “We have the testimony of Domesday Book that by 1086 only 8 per cent of English land remained in the hands of those who had owned it in 1066. William of Malmesbury in the following century confirmed that England had become ‘the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers; at the present time there is no Englishmen who is either earl, bishop, or abbot; strangers all, they prey upon the riches and vitals of England…’”[9]

     Robert Tombs has summed up the new, in essence totalitarian, system as follows: “Social, economic and political control of the land and its people – what in the eighteenth century would retrospectively be termed the ‘feudal system’ – was given a more centralized and rigorous form after the Conquest swept away many existing rights and eliminated the English thegns. The Conqueror at once granted land – ‘fiefs’, or ‘fees’ – to his barons in return for their services, military and political, symbolized by the ceremony of homage, a public oath of allegiance. They in turn granted it to their own followers, for similar allegiance and services: England’s 50,000 square miles could supply about 7,500 knights’ fees of on average six or seven square miles. At the lowest level, ‘natives’, ‘Anglici’, ‘rustics’, ‘serfs’, ‘villeins’ (the words overlapped) were allotted land and protection in return for rent, labout and other services. Many thousands of previously free English landholders became legally subject to the new lords. Recalled an early historian, ‘it was even disgraceful to be called English.’ Over 70 percent of tenants were villeins, holding 15-40 acres or ‘cottagers’, with five acres or less; and many of the former employed paid labourers or slaves.

     “All land and all men were now legally part of this hierarchy, which was buttressed by an ideology of lordship, duty and loyalty, of which the cult of chivalry and the Arthurian romances would later be the most idealized example. In theory, it gave rights as well as duties to all (even, to a limited extent, to villeins). ‘Glanvill’ (the 1180s treatise on law traditionally attributed to Henry II’s Chief Justice, Ranulf Glanvill) stated that ‘the bond of trust in lordship should be mutual’. However unequal the relationship, it did give some protection to dependants, and established a principle of reciprocity. The most unpopular landlords were not barons but monks: the monasteries were efficient and impersonal exploiters with long memories and clear consciences. The military foundation on which feudalism was supposedly based – service in arms was the prime duty owed – was never fully applied, and money was always a substitute. Towns and their inhabitants were always partly outside it.

    “The English version of this ‘feudal system’ was unlike that elsewhere in Europe. The post-Conquest Crown recognized no powers or rights independent of the king. Nor did barons possess large continuous territories, but only scattered holdings. England escaped the trend that tormented the Continent: central authority did not fragment, but was strengthened. Great barons could never create autonomous and warring principalities. They had no jurisdiction over their vassals higher than that of the king’s judges. A French historian comments that ‘the great success of medieval England was to combine an early centralization of justice with recognition of local liberties, buttressed by popular juries.’

     “What about the majority of the population? Pre-Conquest society was later idealized as embodying ‘Anglo-Saxon liberties’, but it was nevertheless… subject to heavy taxation and compulsory labour, and about 12 percent of the people were slaves – a status that the Normans gradually abolished in England, then in Wales and later in Ireland. It was also exposed to invasion and internal conflict. Even so the Conquest was disastrous for English peasants as a whole, through the direct effects of war, greater impositions, and the subjection of many thousands of freemen to serfdom. The luckier ones managed to remain as free tenants (14 percent of those listed in Domesday Book), or held subordinate positions as estate managers, foresters, huntsmen and minor royal officers. The Conquest may have increased a common sense of Englishness among the subject population: the old divide between Dane and Saxon seems to have disappeared. Many must have realized that their personal fate was linked with that of the country. When testifying about local affairs, jurors in the twelfth century sometimes spoke of ‘the Conquest of England’ or referred to the time ‘before the Normans conquered England’. In some places, the customary rights of Anglo-Saxon days were successfully claimed, and long after 1066 peasants appealed to privileges granted by the Confessor, Canute or even Offa.

     “There were two groups of Englishmen, and some women, who retained power, wealth or status. The first group were townspeople. Although the Conquest led to an influx of urban immigrants, the English remained a strong presence, including among the most prominent groups – moneyers, goldsmiths, moneylenders (among them there were also Jewish communities), merchants and royal officers. They were the only significant English group whose wealth and influence could approach that of the French landed magnates, with whom some of them mixed even at the level of the royal court. There were occupational hazards, however: in the 1120s many moneyers were castrated and had their right hands cut off by Henry I for debasing the currency. The second group were churchmen. As we have noted, the highest ranks of the clergy – commanding immense economic and political as well as spiritual power – were close to Englishmen. But the lower levels – parish clergy, cathedral canons, archdeacons, monks, nuns, hermits and anchoresses - remained strongly and sometimes predominantly English in background and culture. Their oral teaching (mostly in English) and writings) in English, Latin and French) maintained English religious and cultural traditions. Some, notably William of Malmesbury (c. 1090 – c. 1142), librarian of Malmesbury Abbey, and Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088- c. 1157), hereditary clergyman-squire of Little Stokely and archdeacon of Huntingdon, both of mixed French and English parentage, were responsible… for writing a new English history which helped to define the post-Conquest nation…

     “The Normans built the grandest, the most experimental, the most expensive buildings in a variety of styles, surpassing the greatest on the Continent. The new Winchester Cathedral (begun in 1079) was the longest in western Europe; London’s White Tower (c. 1080) was the biggest keep in western Europe; Westminster Great Hall (1097) was the largest secular covered space; Norwich castle (c. 1100) was the most ambitious secular building in northern Europe; Christ Church priory, Canterbury, possessed the greatest glass windows in all Europe. Probably more cut stone than in the Pyramids was used in this, the most concentrated construction effort in England between the Romans and the Victorians, amounting to the greatest per capita investment ever seen in England until the Industrial Revolution. Quite a lot, built in haste, fell down… But what remained was stupendous, matched then only by Rome itself, Constantinople and Kiev…”[10] 

     And yet these vast stone structures, so different from the much humbler and cosier structures of the Anglo-Saxons, symbolized as nothing else the complete subjection of the native population. Perhaps the most striking of all is Durham cathedral (c. 1093-1140), built as if to crush England’s greatest saint, who had forced even William the Conqueror to flee. This was truly the English equivalent of the pyramids, which could only have been built by a massive use of slave labour and the impoverishment of England’s northernmost, poorest – and most rebellious - province.

     Tombs continues: “Buildings and lands came to embody new family identities. Wealthy Anglo-Saxons had spread bequests widely among relatives to maintain the cohesion of an extended clan, very conscious of far-flung degrees of kinship. Norman wealth went into stones and mortar: according to William of Malmesbury, the Saxons had lived richly in ‘mean and despicable’ houses, while the Normans lived frugally ‘in noble and splendid mansions’. The practice grew of transmitting land where possible to a single male heir by primogeniture – a social revolution. The family became smaller and more vertical, and attached to a particular place. Names and titles reflected this change. Unlike in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies, which used Christian names and patronymics (e.g. Harold Godwineson) or identifying names based on characteristics or occupation (Thorkell the Tall, Eadric the Steersman), the Norman elite adopted permanent family names derived from land, castle or ancestor (Hubert de Vaux, Roger de Chateauneuf, Richard Fitzgerald). For the rest, individual nicknames (from place, job, physique – John Wood, Robert Smith, Thomas Becket) in time became permanent family surnames.

     “There was no greater cultural conquest than in language. Working shortly before 1066, a thousand writers and copyists of English have been identified. This may sound few, but it is several times the number writing Italian texts in Renaissance Italy. The Normans eradicated written English as the language of government and undermined it as the language of literature, and spoken English ceased to be the language of elite society. This change was confirmed by England’s attachment to the Angevin empire in 1154. It was long believed that English largely disappeared except as a peasant dialect. Walter Scott, in Ivanhoe (1819), made the famous point that English became the language of the farmyard (swine, ox, calf) and French that of the table (pork, beef, veal). But this does not mean that English was crude, and French sophisticated. As we have seen, Old English and Irish were the most developed of Europe’s vernaculars. English had a standardized writing from the late tenth century, whereas French had no written literature at all until – ironically – it was pioneered in post-Conquest England…, perhaps in imitation of Anglo-Saxon literature. Replacing English required two languages: Latin, for legal, administrative, ecclesiastical, commercial and intellectual contexts; French for verbal communication among the new elites. The sophistication of English government drove a high level of lay literacy. ‘Unless a man knows French he is little thought of,’ wrote the chronicler Robert of Gloucester in about 1290; ‘but low-born men keep to English and to their own speech still’. 

     “Spoken English thus survived. Moreover, it soon predominated in everyday speech: the Normans needed it to communicate with the great majority of the population. Often within a generation, smaller landlords not only became bilingual in French and English – except among the highest nobility and at court – probably became their first language. Knowledge of French remained an essential social attribute, but noble children had to be sent to France to learn it properly. Bilingualism became a mark of ‘English’ identity among the descendants of the Normans. Trilingualism (with Latin) was the norm for the educated. In practice, there was a hybridization, or ‘creolization’, with the languages being mixed together, creating huge changes in vocabulary and grammar. French and Latin words were imported into English, though more slowly than Scott’s example might suggest. For example, in the popular verse history of Britain, Layamon’s Brut (c. 1200), a rare example of non-religious literature in English, there were only 250 French loan-words in 30,000 lines.

     “So written English too survived. It retained certain grass-roots legal functions. In important monastic outposts, notably Worcester, Hereford, Winchester, Canterbury, Peterborough and Exeter, which we can properly call patriotic, it was propagated as the way of teaching the people. The monks of Peterborough Abbey were the last who continued to write the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, until 1154; but they stopped using formal English in 1121, when it was replaced by a local dialect – a sign of how quickly the old formal language was forgotten. By the end of the century, very few could still read it. In 1230, a monk at Worcester was trying to learn it – the West Midlands seem to have maintained a tradition – but by 1300 Old English had become an ‘ydioma incognita’. Yet English, in older and newer forms, continued to be written in religious centres such as Worcester and Hereford. Even after the Conquest, the production and use of vernacular texts was rarely paralleled anywhere in medieval Europe. These were not luxury products, but were for everyday use in prayer, preaching and ritual, and hence for the mass of the people English remained the intimate language of belief and salvation. This is one of the things that prevented it, changing though it inevitably was, from becoming a dying peasant dialect. The French-speaking elite often mocked it as uncouth, and so using and writing it was somewhat subversive. One Worcester scribe left a list of the notable churchmen who ‘taught our people in English’; and he added, ‘not dim, their light: it fair glowed’.

     “English continued in place-names, though little in personal names. There is perhaps nothing that distances us more instinctively from the pre-Conquest English than names: Ealdgyth, Aelfgifu, Colswein, Eadric, Waltheof (even if a few were revived during the Romantic period – Karl Marx called one of his sons Edgar). Our names since the 1100s have been overwhelmingly Norman, a personal form of cultural conquest through snobbery: William (which became the most common), John, Richard, Robert, Margaret, Mary, Emma. In a significant conciliatory gesture, the sons of Henry III were christened Edward and Edmund, signaling a link with the pre-Conquest monarchy; and the former became King Edward I in 1272.”[11 

     However, the very fact that this King Edward was called “the first” when in fact there were at least three King Edwards before him shows how the Normans sought to blot out the pre-Conquest history of England…

     Tombs concludes: “The Conquest thus began to transform much of English culture. But it is likely that Latin, the common language of [Western] Christendom, would in any case have been increasingly used in legal, devotional and intellectual matters, as was happening across Europe: even before 1066, despite the prominence of the vernacular, there was more writing in Latin than in English. Choices of names would also probably have changed, as elsewhere in Europe, as the Church encouraged more uniform devotions. French would have come into greater use among the educated and the fashionable, especially in courtly and chivalric literature. This was not only because of the Conquest; the peak of borrowing from French came three centuries after 1066, a consequence of the cultural magnetism of Pairs and the other great French cities, which affected all of western Europe.

     “There was a dazzling literary revival in England in the century following the Conquest – but in Latin and French. It was probably the English tradition of vernacular writing that encouraged the development of writing in French. Some of the earliest works of French literature came from England or had English connections. The famous Chanson de Roland, an epic poem of Charlemagne’s battles against the Saracens, was first written down in England in the early twelfth century. The first historical work in French was Geoffrey Gaimar’s history of the English, the Estoire des Engleis (c. 1136-37), an accessible work in fashionable French verse based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. English authors – or authors in England, often of mixed Anglo-Norman families – attained a European influence greater than ever before, and rarely equaled since.

     “Their most important works were histories or historical romances in Latin – the first major works of English history since Bede 400 years before. William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (c. 1126) was a continuous history of England from the arrival of the Saxons to Henry I, and Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum went from the mythical arrival of the Trojan hero Brutus to 1154, just before the author’s death. The most extraordinary of these works went beyond English history, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), ‘one of the supreme achievements of the historical imagination’, which transformed English visions of the past. As noted earlier, Geoffrey and his emulators plunged into legend and fantasy to create a prestigious new common Anglo-British epic. It became one of the most popular historical works in the European Middle Ages, far more widely read even than Bede, and is the only historical work known to have been in the possession of great nobles. It also produced popular spin-offs. The Jerseyman Wace, a monk in Caen, produced in 1155 a popular French version of the sage, called the Roman de Brut (Brutus), which, among other things, added the story of Arthur’s Round Table. Significantly, he often translated Britannia as Engleterre. Layman (‘Lawman’) prepared his English translation of Brut in the early 1200s – an oddity, as even patriotic writings (such as the Roman de Waldef – about Earl Waltheof) were usually in French. Walter Map, a Herefordshire priest at Henry II’s court, wrote a French version of the Grail and Lancelot stories (c. 1180). A later prose version of Brut was very widely read in Latin, French and above all English – more copies survive than of any other medieval manuscript, and it was repeatedly printed by Caxton after 1480.

     “Thus for more than two centuries English after 1066 almost ceased to be the language of secular literary culture, as the elite no longer commissioned major works in English. A rare exception, such as Layamon’s Brut, was perhaps an early sign of a new appetite for literature in English. But especially in the religious sphere English writing – sermons, psalms, saints’ lives, poetry, songs – continued as one element of a bilingual or trilingual culture. One of the most famous pieces of early music – ‘Sumer is icumen in / Lhude sing cuccu’ – is a song written down in Reading Abbey in about 1250, using the same tune as a hymn. English did not therefore decline into a merely spoken range of peasant dialects, as was traditionally thought…”

     “By 1200 at the latest the descendants of the victors of Hastings (with the exception of a small number of cosmopolitan aristocrats with land in several countries) had become English, by speaking English, describing themselves generally as English, adopting what were thought of as English manner (including drinking), and expressing pride in their English lineage, gilded with the glories of Brutus and King Arthur. “[12]

     A decisive turning-point was the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, when an Anglo-French rebellion against the infant King Heny III was defeated by a much smaller force under William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. French influence decline; and “by 1271,” writes Thomas Asbridge, “the first history of England written in Old English, rather than Latin or French, had been penned. The days of the hybrid, cross-channel society were done…”[13]

     However, continues Tombs, “the Englishness of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century elite was… very different from Englishness before 1066, whose culture there was no effort to rehabilitate or revive. Sir Lancelot replaced Beowulf as a literary hero. Relations with the outside world were transformed. England before 1066 had been on the defensive, and relations with island neighbours (despite their regular raids or invasions) had been generally cautious. The Norman Conquest made a crucial change. Before 1066 the kingdom served principally to defend the country, the eard. After 1066, England served to support largely absentee king in their pursuit of external power. The Normans extended their conquest to the Celtic lands and entangled England in endless conflicts on the Continent. This was the real ‘Norman Yoke’.


     “Its burden created the embryo of a national polity: the communitas regni appealed to the Magna Carta and then again in the barons’ revolt of 1258. This ‘community of the realm’ – ultimately everyone – united in asserting rights against their rulers, especially when those rulers treated England’s interests as secondary. As the barons protested to the Pope in 1258, ‘a prince owes all hid duty to God, very much to his country [patria], much to his family and neighbours, and nothing whatsoever to aliens.’ Loyalty to the country could conflict with loyalty to the king, and a sense of foreign oppression became a feature of English identity.

     “What was unique about England lies in the realm of politics: the early development, in response to Viking invasions, of a powerful kingdom occupying a defined territory, with a system of government in which a large part of the population participated, whether they liked it or not – through courts and juries, through tithings, through labour, taxation and military service, through the use of royal coins, and, for the powerful, through royal councils and parliaments. Some historians have suggested that this made England the prototype of the nation-state. Similar institutions to those in England had existed at times in other parts of Europe, particularly under the empire of Charlemagne, but they were swept away. In England they survived. Being a powerful and yet vulnerable kingdom, able to raise taxes and impose law and aorder, and yet, subject to disputed royal succession and foreign invasion, its kings needed the support of their people, and the people high and low needed to control the actions of their kings. Anglo-Saxon institutions, some of very ancient origin, were preserved and developed by the post-Conquest monarchy, which extended royal justice and created a Common Law. The country of Bede’s gens Anglorum was never divided up into autonomous and warring feudal territories. Instead, the ‘community of the realm’ imposed the rule of law on its powerful and rapacious post-Conquest monarchs to a degree unique in Europe.”[14]

     Therefore much that was English survived after 1066, especially in the cultural and political spheres. But we must be clear about the great treasures that were lost: the Orthodox Autocracy and the Orthodox Church. Autocracy was replaced by Despotism, albeit one tempered by the embryonic Democratism of Magna Carta and the belief that the king was not above the law – England’s law, the Common Law. Orthodoxy was replaced by Roman Catholicism, truth by heresy. In later centuries, occasional appeals were made to what was thought to be the faith of the Anglo-Saxon Church.[15] But there was little consciousness of the fact that the Norman Conquest marked an ecclesiastical, as well as a political, revolution. For England was now part of the great pseudo-Christian empire of the papacy, which, theoretically at least, had the power to depose her kings, close her churches (which it did in King John’s reign) and enroll her soldiers in crusades against the Muslims and Orthodox Christians around the world. Little was said or done about returning to union with the Orthodox of the East – except for those thousands who actually emigrated there in the 1070s. Even the visit, in the early fifteenth century, of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel to England to enlist English help in the defense of Constantinople against the Turks failed to arouse English interest in the ancestral Orthodox faith – although as late as 1204 Anglo-Saxon warriors had been fighting for the Byzantine emperor in his famous Varangian bodyguard.

     Englishness had revived: but the true spirit of England was dead, still, today, awaiting a future resurrection.


January 22 / February 4, 2019.


[1] Freeman, E.A., A History of the Norman Conquest of England, Oxford, 1870-1879, p. 1.

[2] Liber Confortarius; translated in Barlow, The English Church 1000-1066, p. 29.

[3] At about the same time the famous scholar Abelard of Paris noted: "The Fathers were guided by the Holy Spirit, but we are not" (quoted by Fr. Andrew Phillips, Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, p. 19).

[4] Wood, The Battle of Hastings, London; Atlantic Books, 2008, p. 2.

[5] R.H.C. Davies, The Normans and their Myth, London: Thames & Hudson, 1976, p. 103.

[6] Neveux, op. cit., p. 142.

[7] Bragg, The Adventure of English, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, pp. 38-39.  For comparison’s sake, we may note that about one-third of modern Russia’s wealth is in the hands of 110 billionaires.

[8] Morris, “What the Normans did for Us”, BBC History Magazine, November, 2016, p. 34.

[9] Wood, op. cit., p. 205.

[10] Tombs, op. cit., pp. 51-53.

[11] Tombs, op. cit., pp. 54-56.

[12] Tombs, op. cit, pp. 56-57.

[13]  Asbridge, “The Battle that Gave Birth to Medieval England”, BBC History Magazine, May, 2017, p. 26.

[14] Tombs, op. cit., pp. 81-83.

[15] See Christopher Hill, “The Norman Yoke”, in Puritanism and the Revolution, London: Penguin Books, 1958, 1990, pp. 58-125.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company