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Who Were the Normans?

A Norman getting ready to do one of their favourite pastimes; setting light to farmhouses
*Norman with torches

The Viking raids and invasions of the ninth and tenth century led to Scandinavian settlement in many parts of Europe. One of these places was north-western France, in the area now known as Normandy. This name literally means the 'land of the Northmen'.

Although originally taken by force this Scandinavian colony soon became a part of the Frankish kingdom, and it's 'Viking' leader became a duke. As time went by the dukedom was enlarged, and the inhabitants became less and less Viking, and more Frankish in their way of life until eventually they became the people now known as the Normans.

They are roundly hated by the present day English, and any Norman portrayed in films or books is disliked in the most partisan fashion. What makes us hate these historic people so much, even by comparison to the Vikings who were around at the same time?

Many of the answers to these questions can be found at the start of the printed word. Not so much the advent of Guttenburgs press, but the histories of the English people in the 17th century and the novels of the 19th century. With the glossing over of the Roman conquest of Britain, chroniclers in the 1600's set upon the Normans with some glee as the baddies. Firstly they upset the legend of the Anglo-Saxon golden age that was created by Alfred the Great, and secondly, they came from that country which was still hanging on to the Catholic faith in the face of English so called religious enlightenment. France was still at odds with Britain over many issues, however the church was the main bone of contention. This spilled over into confusing the Normans with the then present French, despite the fact that there was little the French of the 1600's had to do with anything William had done, other than having committed the sin of having lived in the same country. The irony here is that William would have happily overthrown the French King Henry, thereby creating a Norman lineage rather than a French one. To mention the word Norman met with the same revolution as saying French.

By the 19th century, things were no better for the memory of the Normans. Characters such as Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, Hereward the Wake, all set in the reign of the Norman Kings, were to suffer to one degree or another because the Normans were the baddies, not to be trusted etc. All this bad press has to this day not really been brought into check, with mass media and feature films just serving to exacerbate matters. The Normans have been thoroughly tarred with the same brush.

The Vikings have been put into perspective over the last few years, with one of the best concise descriptions as a blood thirsty time with the Vikings prepared to be just that bit more blood thirsty than most. To a certain extent, the same could be said of the Normans, but it is a huge generalisation. They defeated Harold on a wing and prayer, largely by altering the rules of engagement. The Saxons stood on the hill at Battle, and absorbed the Norman attack. However, the Saxons were unable to inflict the kind of damage that would have surely guaranteed them victory that they would have normally enjoyed on home ground. The Saxon Kingdom was divided up parcels of land that rather than a burh at it's centre, had Motte and bailey castles erected. This may be a demonstration of selfishness on the part of the Normans, but this practice had been shown to work on the continent. The concept of castles were not invented by the Normans, but adopted over time since Rollo's arrival in Normandy. The act of throwing up a well defended castle had knock-on effects militarily. Whereas the Saxons were basically tied in to defending walled towns, the Normans preferred to either combat the aggressor, or if the threat was too great, they holed themselves up with plenty of stores into their castles. Without sophisticated siege equipment, Norman tactics relied upon starving the garrison out. Apart from just surrounding the castle to prevent anything going in or coming out, warparties stripped the surrounding land of supplies, to hinder any relief troops, and to help guarantee no assistance was rendered to the besieged garrison. Warfare in this country changed with the advent of the castle. The castles themselves helped to fuel the growing schismatic power of the Barons in later years to the great detriment of the local populace.

Having been beaten in the field of battle, the now underdog Saxons had to cope with the idea of being if fief to a foreign heirachy. With only a handful of truly loyal troops to hand, William had good cause to stamp out any idea of rebelliousness as fast as he could, lest the Saxons discovered that they still had the moral to face William down in another pitched fray. However, matters back in Normandy begged Williams attention, and in only March 1067 he left the country in the capable hands of Odo, his half brother and so called Bishop, and to an ambitious shady character called William fitz Osbern, soon to be Earl of Hereford. Odo was detailed to look after the South and fitz Osbern the Northern counties. According to the writings of Ordericus Vitalis, a seemingly impartial chronicler monk who lived in Normandy in the next century, (his father was English and he was born in England), Odo and fitz Osbern started a castle building campaign across the country, with the express purpose to "oppressed all the inhabitants of high and lower degree", and he continues "and heaped shameful burdens upon them." Matters were to take a huge downturn as soldiers were not brought to justice for rape and looting property. An Anglo-Saxon witness to all this wrote; "Bishop Odo and Earl William were left behind here, and they built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went from bad to worse."Ordericus goes on to remark that all of the complaints that the Saxons brought were swept aside without giving them "impartial justice."

Possibly one of the most reviled figures in British history, but I expect his mother still loved him
*Knight on horseback

Despite having taken hostages to guarantee the peace back in England, William returned to a country now straining at the leash to overthrow the Norman rulers. In early 1068, his most costly rebellion to sort was at Exeter, which cost William dear. After an 18 day siege, the town was allowed to surrender with terms and guarantees of safety which William abided by. However, some writers at the time claimed that his guarantees were never adhered to. He then recieved a slap in the face as the hostages he safely returned to England soon became the centres of yet more revolts in the Midlands and north of the country. To try and settle matters, William started North to regain control. To begin with, things weren't too difficult, and as if there were not enough castles already, he ordered yet more to be erected. This campaign of late 1068 helped to stabilise affairs, with William feeling that he could safely replace Earl Gospatric of Northumbria with a much more trusted man in the form of Robert of Commines. The North was never going to lie down quite so easily. In the early days of January 1069, Robert and 900 (!) of his men were burned to death in the Bishop's Palace in Durham. York then revolted and put the Norman commander to death. William moved very rapidly to quell this latest outbreak in the North which resulted in hundreds of deaths for the rebels, however by Easter, he was to be drawn South to the West Country again to deal with more unrest there. North Wales, Chester, and Shrewsbury joined in in separate actions, with Shrewsbury being burnt to the ground. To add to his woes, the Vikings in the shape of Swein of Denmark made a number of attacks down the coast and then sat off the Humber estuary no doubt sensing a nation in crisis and ideal for the taking. The presence of Swein may have encouraged the people of York to rebel once again and throw their lot in with Swein as he took control of York on 20th September of that year and various districts of Lincolnshire.

William swept up to York and drove off the Danes and secured the city yet again. He spent Christmas there, to ensure that things were quiet, and as proof of his strength of will. The new year saw him in Chester, Stafford, and many places in between. The Danes were soon persuaded to accept 'Dane Geld', and withdrew from the locality. The Danes then overran the Ilse of Ely and sacked Peterborough. Earl Morcar who had been lurking upon the fringes of matters and the mysterious Hereward the Wake threatened to jion forces with Swein, but William concluded a treaty with Swein allowing him to retire with his booty, which pulled the rug from under any other protagonists. All that was left was for William to finally secure his borders with Scotland and Wales. However, 1070 saw William according to the chroniclers; "...had all the Monasteries in England plundered and in this same year there was a great famine." Later writers speak of the good and bad being ruined, and there was a 'consuming famine'. Other disturbing phrases such as 'wholesale massacre' crop up. This was then the period of the laying waste of the agricultural lands in the North. The affected districts were still ruined some seventeen years later. Ordericus continues; "William in the fullness of his wrath ordered the corn and cattle, with the implements of husbandry and every sort of provisions, to be collected in heaps and set on fire until the whole was consumed and thus destroyed at once all that could serve for the support of life in the whole country lying beyond the Humber."The famine that resulted has been estimated to have lasted for nine years. His actions definitely prevented anymore rebellious uprisings against him in that region, but at what price and what cost of the hearts of the English nation. Perhaps there was never anything to redeem from the hearts of the old Saxon Kingdom, so that it never mattered or affected his conscience.

William had little time to reflect upon these episodes as Normandy became the next target for envious eyes, and he was forced to straighten out affairs there.

The castles have always been seen as images of suppression of the people, whereas they can also be viewed as devices to ensure their security. An invading army had to deal with the castle first, and may have been defeated in the process, ensuring that the local inhabitants were left largely unmolested. Norman justice has been criticised as cruel and unjust. By comparison with justice that the Vikings and Anglo-Saxon sometimes meted out, this can be seen as over stated. And with the arrival of the Normans, it is unequivocal that the Kingdom was in safe hands, and the reality is that they were only a few generations on from the Vikings themselves.

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