5 Ways the Norman Conquest Changed England

Helen Kay

Middle Ages Norman Conquest
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In 1066 William, duke of Normandy, invaded England, defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings and seized the kingdom for himself.

Some of the troops who fought for him were foreign mercenaries and adventurers. The rest were Norman nobles and the war bands they had raised from their tenantry to support the duke’s daring enterprise.

Most of the surviving mercenaries eventually returned home with jangling purses, but the Normans came to stay.

Here are 5 of the biggest changes they wrought on the nation they conquered.

1. A new tenurial system

When William vanquished the Anglo-Saxons, he confiscated their estates and introduced a new tenurial system under which he owned all the land.

He kept some of it for himself, gave some to the Church and granted the rest to his barons on condition that they swore an oath of loyalty to him and supplied him with men for his armies.

William the Conqueror
King William I (‘The Conqueror’), between 1597 and 1618 (Credit: National Portrait Gallery).

The barons, in turn, granted part of the land they held to a select group of knights, who likewise pledged their loyalty. The knights then granted little strips of ground to large numbers of peasants, who worked their lord’s fields and gave him a share of their produce.

The tenurial system the king adopted had two consequences: it created a new ruling class, and tethered power to the possession of real estate because many of the invaders owed their social standing to the lands they held, rather than their lineage.

2. A new ruling class

The Domesday Book – the result of a huge property survey that William commissioned in late 1085 – reveals the scale of the Norman land grab.

The aggregate value of the area covered by the survey was about £73,000. The Church held some 26 per cent of this territory, but almost everything else was in Norman hands.

The king headed the nation’s “rich list”, with estates covering 17 per cent of England, while roughly 150-200 barons held another 54 per cent between them.

Doomesday Book
A page from William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book (Credit: Public domain).

However, there was an elite within the elite. Some 70 men held lands worth £100 to £650, and the 10 greatest magnates controlled enormous fiefdoms worth £650 to £3,240.

The remaining 7,800-odd landholders possessed relatively modest estates. In fact, more than 80 per cent of the secular (as distinct from clerical) subtenants named in Great Domesday held lands worth £5 or less. Most of these people were also Normans.

Native subtenants, by contrast, held only 5 per cent of the country – and the majority of them held just one manor. Some were survivors who had managed to cling to their ancestral estates. Others had supported William and prospered under the new regime.

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3. A new pattern of inheritance

In addition to redistributing England’s landed wealth, William altered the basis on which that wealth cascaded down the generations.

In Anglo-Saxon society, when a man died, his lands were usually shared out among his sons under the principle of “partible inheritance”. In Normandy, however, there was a dual pattern of inheritance.

An ordinary landholder could divide his estate among his chosen heirs. Conversely, a noble was required to pass all his inherited property to his first-born son.

William the Conqueror and Robert
William the Conqueror and his son Robert, 1865 (Credit: John Cassell).

William adhered to Norman custom. But when he himself died, he bequeathed Normandy (which he had inherited) to his eldest son, Robert Curthose, and England (which he had acquired) to his second son, William Rufus. He left no land for his youngest son, Henry, who simply received 5,000 lbs. of silver.

Most of the barons copied the king’s example. If they had more than one son, the inherited lands generally went to the first-born and the acquired lands to the second-born, while any other sons had to make their own way in life.

This practice soon spread to the lesser ranks. Within a century of the Conquest, male primogeniture applied to even the lowliest military tenancy.

4. The seeds for a two-tier parliamentary system

The roots of the new Anglo-Norman nobility lay in mainland Europe, but they diverged from their neighbours. While every medieval European nation had a patrician elite, it was typically a single broad caste.

In England, by contrast, the nobility formed two cohorts: the small coterie of titled magnates who held vast tracts of territory directly from the king, and the much larger group of lesser landowners – the gentry – who held land from the barons they served.

Dominions of William the Conqueror around 1087 (Credit: William R. Shepherd, University of Texas Libraries).

The former enjoyed greater privileges than the latter. The law of male primogeniture also ensured that the English aristocracy as a whole gradually became less numerous but financially stronger than their continental counterparts.

The magnates attended the royal councils that William established to replace the Anglo-Saxon Witan. But over time England’s middling landholders also became involved in the running of the country.

Thus the Conquest sowed the seeds for a two-tier parliamentary system in which titled magnates sat, by right, in the House of Lords, while the gentry were only eligible for election to the House of Commons as emissaries of the counties in which they resided.

A modified version of this structure remains even now.

5. A new architectural landscape

When William reached England, he made his base at Hastings, where he immediately built a wooden keep on a large mound of earth, inside a courtyard enclosed by a palisade and protective ditch.

Hastings castle
A Bayeux Tapestry scene depicting an attack on the Château de Dinan in Brittany, shown with a wooden palisade surmounting the motte (Credit: Myrabella / CC),

It was the first of many such “motte-and-bailey” castles. By 1100 more than 500 motte-and-bailey castles had been constructed.

The Normans erected castles to subdue the native populace, and erected monasteries and churches to make their peace with God.

In 1066 there were some 45 Benedictine monasteries in England. By 1150 another 95 religious houses had been founded.

Buildings for public worship were also springing up all around. In Anglo-Saxon times a fairly small network of minster churches served large territories. By the mid-12th century there were numerous little parish churches, many of which still exist, resting on the foundations of a Norman predecessor.

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A bidirectional process

The Conquest left an indelible mark on the nation. Yet just as the Normans transformed England, so England transformed them.

The descendants of the men who had crossed the Channel in 1066 slowly shed their Norman heritage as immigrants married indigenes, administrators of native origin entered noble service and the English language displaced French.

By 1362, when Edward III passed a law making English the “tongue of the country”, the Normans had become wholly English.

Dr Helen Kay is the author of The 1066 Norman Bruisers, published by Pen & Sword in February 2020. Her book conjures up the vanished world of medieval England through the lens of one family – the Boydells of Dodleston Castle – and shows how a bunch of Norman thugs evolved into the quintessentially English gentry.

Tags: William the Conqueror

Helen Kay