Who Were the Normans and Why Did They Conquer England?

Laura Mackenzie

3 mins

15 May 2018

The Normans were Vikings who settled in northwestern France in the 10th and 11th centuries and their descendants. These people gave their name to the duchy of Normandy, a territory ruled by a duke that grew out of a 911 treaty between King Charles III of West Francia and Rollo, the leader of the Vikings.

Under this agreement, known as the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, Charles granted land along the lower Seine in return for Rollo’s assurances that his people would a) defend the area from other Vikings and b) that they would convert to Christianity.

The territory allocated to the Normans was then expanded by Rudolph, King of France, and within a few generations a distinct “Norman identity” had emerged — the result of the Viking settlers intermarrying with the so-called “native” Frankish-Celtic population.

The most famous Norman of them all

In the later part of the 10th century, the region began to take the shape of a duchy, with Richard II becoming the area’s first duke. Richard was the grandfather of the man who would become the most famous Norman of them all: William the Conqueror.

Dr Marc Morris is an historian and broadcaster, specialising in the Middle Ages. He is the author of 'William I: England's Conqueror'.Watch Now

William inherited the duchy upon his father’s death in 1035 but was not able to establish complete authority over Normandy until about 1060. But securing the duchy was not the only goal on William’s mind during this time — he also had his eyes set on the English throne.

The Norman duke’s belief that he held the right to the English throne stemmed from a letter supposedly written to him in 1051 by the then king of England and William’s first cousin once removed, Edward the Confessor.

Before becoming king in 1042, Edward had spent much of his life in Normandy, living in exile under the protection of Norman dukes. During this time he is believed to have developed a friendship with William and in the 1051 letter it is claimed that a childless Edward promised the English crown to his Norman friend.

On his deathbed, however, many sources say that Edward instead named the powerful English earl Harold Godwinson as his successor. And on the same day that Edward was buried, 6 January 1066, this earl became King Harold II.

William’s fight for the English throne

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William was incensed by the news that Harold had taken the crown from him, not least because Harold had sworn to help him secure the English throne just two years before — albeit under the threat of death (Harold made the oath after William negotiated his release from captivity by the Count of Ponthieu, a county located in modern-day France, and had him brought to Normandy).

The Norman duke immediately began to rally for support, including from neighbouring French provinces, and ultimately gathered a fleet of 700 ships. He was also given the backing of the pope in his fight for the English crown.

Believing that everything was in his favour, William waited for good winds before setting sail for England, landing on the Sussex coast in September 1066.

The following month, William and his men confronted Harold and his troops on a field near the town of Hastings and the rest, as they say, is history. Harold was dead by nightfall and William would go on to secure control over the rest of England, ultimately being crowned king on Christmas Day of that year.

William’s coronation was monumental for England in that it ended more than 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule and saw the installation of the first Norman king. But it was also monumental for Normandy. From that point on, the duchy of Normandy was mostly held by kings of England until 1204 when it was captured by France.