The Face of Norman England
While "feudalism" was not unknown in Anglo-Saxon society1, under the Normans it became more extreme.2 When William granted land to his Norman lords, it was understood that they would serve the king by providing trained knights. Lords subinfeudated their holdings, offering land to lesser knights under similar arrangements. The result was a relatively well-structured ruling class composed of keen, ambitious warriors who spoke a foreign language: French.
At the same time, Saxons underwent an evolution in the lower strata of society. Some freemen became villeins -- tied to the land -- as did some slaves. Most found themselves further down the social scale than they had been under Saxon rule. The growth in towns and cities that had begun before the invasion continued at a relatively unaltered pace, but the notable schism between the English population and the Norman aristocracy would color the character of British life for years to come.
The most visible sign of this gulf was the plethora of Norman castles that sprang up throughout Brtitain. While most of these began as nothing more than motte-and-bailey structures, many were developed over the years into the huge stone bastions that became characteristic of medieval England. They protected their Norman lords from rebellious subjects, and served to isolate them, as well.
In addition to military defenses, William and the Normans built churches, abbeys, and cathedrals, and renovated many existing structures in the Norman style. William had begun his conquest with papal support, and the Church under the Normans was to see an influx of continental prelates. In keeping with the reforms of Pope Gregory VII, Stigand, who had been bestowed his office by Earl Godwin, was replaced in the Archbishopric of Canterbury by the more well-respected Lanfranc. The Investiture Controversy that occupied the pope during these years would flare up in England after the Conqueror's death, but during his lifetime he remained a respected ally of the papacy.
Although William had to spend a great deal of time overseeing matters in Normandy, he still managed to institute new laws and, displaying a keen interest in the land he had won, commission the Domesday survey. No other monarch of his day obtained such a comprehensive understanding of his kingdom. Without a doubt, the Conqueror's energy and powerful personality were to leave their stamp on the new England.
The New England
The Norman Conquest marked a turning point in English history. Some of the oncoming changes were already underway, but a few were either initiated or sped along by the presence of the new Norman aristocracy and the indomitable William himself.
The end of Saxon rule meant a break with Scandinavia; at the same time, the Conqueror and his sons were to bring England politically closer to France. It is this association that would make the British Isles a potent force in European politics, a standing that generations of monarchs would maintain for centuries.
1 An argument for the existence of feudalism in England prior to the Norman Conquest can be found in Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England by F.W. Maitland.
2The very concept of "feudalism," known in some academic circles as "the F-word," has been called into question. For more information, see The F-Word: The Problem with Feudalism by your Guide.
Think you know all about the Norman Conquest? Test yourself in the Quest for Conquest Quiz
Guide note: This feature was first posted in January, 2000 and was updated in October, 2007.
Sources and Suggested Reading
The links below will take you to an online bookstore, where you can find more information about the book to help you get it from your local library. This is provided as a convenience to you; neither Melissa Snell nor About is responsible for any purchases you make through these links.
Impact of the
edited by C. Warren Hollister
Authoritative examination of England after the invasion.
England and Its
by M. T. Clanchy
Overview of the leadership of England from the reign of the Conqueror to Edward I.
1066: The Year of
by David Howarth
Fairly clear, uncomplicated introduction to life in England in the 11th century, the events that brought about the Conquest, and what followed.
Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph
by Wolfgang Grape
A look at this memorable piece of Norman victory propaganda.
Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted
by Susan Reynolds
A fresh look at a relatively modern construct. Controversial and intriguing.
The Making of
by C. Warren Hollister
Lucid general overview of England from the first Roman incursions to 1399.