What Fueled the Norman Conquest of England?

Author: riddhi.mukherjee
Go to Source

EdTech Café

EdTech Cafe
 Standford EdTech (Author)
EdTech Café is a podcast series produced by the educational technology team at Stanford Medicine.
By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

In the High Middle Ages, Normandy and England shared a relationship. How did this relationship come to be, and what was its nature? Also, did this relationship play a role in the Norman Conquest of England and impact the future of England for centuries to come?

A coastline with ragged cliffs at the far end and a beach and bay at the near end, and the remnants of a harbor can be   seen almost completely submerged in the water, and there are a few newer buildings and constructions by the beach.
The Norman conquerors of England hailed from Normandy in northern France, but prior to that Anglo-Saxon England and Normandy shared very close relations in the decades leading up to the Norman Conquest. (Image: Myrabella/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 altered the trajectory of England’s history, pulling it out of a Scandinavian orbit, in which it had previously moved, and into more of a continental orbit.

At the same time, the Norman Conquest resulted in the strengthening of a monarchy that was already one of the most formidable in Europe, and indeed, the English monarchy would grow so strong that within a century of the Norman Conquest of England, it controlled more of France than did the kings of France themselves.

Even though, in 1066, Norman conquerors, hailing from Normandy in northern France, seized the English throne from the Anglo-Saxon rulers who had previously held it, Anglo-Saxon England and Normandy had had very close relations in the decades leading up to the Norman Conquest. The closeness of these relations would pave the way for the Norman Conquest of England.

Learn more about the Norman conquest.

The Viking Settlers of Normandy

Normandy was a rather peculiar part of Europe at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was one of the few areas of the European continent to have experienced extensive Viking settlement during the course of the 10th century.

A stone statue of Viking warrior Rollo
Viking warrior Rollo was invited, along with his followers, to settle in Normandy to protect the northern coast of France from other Vikings who were still plundering and raiding the European continent. (Image: Pradigue/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

Back in 911, a Carolingian ruler had invited a group of Vikings and their leader, whose name was Rollo, to settle in Normandy. He hoped that the Vikings who settled in Normandy could be used to protect the northern coast of France from other Vikings, who were still plundering and raiding the European continent at that point.

Rollo and his Viking followers accepted the job, and did a fairly good job of protecting the continent. The Viking attacks petered out on the continent during the course of the 10th century.

It’s worth noting that the name ‘Normandy’ is derived from the Vikings. The Vikings were called ‘Northmen’ during the Middle Ages, and Normandy is the land where the Northmen had settled.

At the time of the Viking settlement in Normandy in 911, the Vikings were pagans, and they spoke a Scandinavian language. At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, though, the Vikings who settled in Normandy had abandoned paganism and adopted Christianity. They had also abandoned their Scandinavian language for the French language.

At the time of Rollo’s settlement in 911 he had been given the title of ‘count’, but his descendants took the more prestigious title of ‘duke’, and no one was willing to tell them that they couldn’t.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Dukes of Normandy and Kings of England Shared a Blood Tie

Viking attacks against Anglo-Saxon England resumed after a lull in the 980s, and they soon grew so bad that the kings of England looked to the Normans in Normandy for help.

In 991, to cement an alliance between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, the Anglo-Saxon king of England, whose name was Aethelred, agreed to marry the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. This marriage in 991 established a blood tie between the dukes of Normandy and the kings of England; a blood tie that was going to have momentous and unforeseen consequences in future generations.

When the Viking attacks on England grew so bad that the Anglo-Saxon kings had to flee their kingdom, it was to Normandy that they fled. In 1013, the Anglo-Saxon kings of England went into exile, and they spent most of the next three decades living in Normandy. Not until 1042 did Anglo-Saxon kings actually return to their own kingdom.

When an Anglo-Saxon king named Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, several individuals laid claim to the English throne. One individual who claimed that he should be the next king of England was named Harald Hardrada. Hardrada was a Norwegian. He had certain blood ties to the Anglo-Saxon royal family, and so his claims were not entirely groundless.

A second individual whose claim to the throne was about as good, thanks to blood ties, was the duke of Normandy, known as William the Bastard, which referred to his background, not to his personality. Later, he would be given the more congenial name of William the Conqueror.

Learn more about feudalism.

The Anglo-Saxons Wanted Their Own King

The king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, and the duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, were not the only two individuals with a claim to the throne. The inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England themselves did not relish the thought of a foreigner coming in and establishing a new ruling dynasty.

Harald Hardrada spoke Norwegian. William the Conqueror spoke French. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy decided to elect one of their own to be the next king, and they elected an individual by the name of Harold Godwinson.

Harold Godwinson, after he was elected as king, prepared feverishly for the expected Norwegian and Norman attacks, as Harald Hardrada and William the Conqueror attempted to make good their claims to the throne.

Both Harald Hardrada and William the Conqueror wanted to get to England first, in the hopes that they could defeat the Anglo-Saxons, assume a defensive position, and beat off their rivals. As luck would have it, though, prevailing winds blowing from north to south prevented William the Conqueror from setting sail as early as he would have liked, and as a result, he had to bide his time in Normandy, while his rival, Harald Hardrada arrived in the north of England.

The Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings

A map of England and Wales depicting the location, date and participants in the key events during the Norman Conquest of England.
At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson and his Anglo-Saxon army defeated Harald Hardrada and drove the Norwegians out of England, but the Anglo-Saxon army was left in a weakened condition, which allowed the Norman army to defeat them at the Battle of Hastings, and William the Conqueror was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, 1066. (Image: Amitchell125/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

Harald Hardrada and Harold Godwinson, together with their respective Norwegian and Anglo-Saxon followers, met in the north at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which was fought in 1066, and the result was an Anglo-Saxon victory—sort of.

Harald Hardrada was defeated, and the Norwegians were driven out, but they inflicted so much damage upon the Anglo-Saxons that the Anglo-Saxon army was left in a weakened condition. No sooner had the Anglo-Saxons won at Stamford Bridge, than news arrived that the winds had changed, and that William the Conqueror had arrived in the south of England.

The Anglo-Saxons rushed to the south where they met the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, also fought in 1066. The result of the Battle of Hastings was a Norman victory. Harold Godwinson was shot in the eye with an arrow, which turned the tide of battle, and William the Conqueror was able to have himself crowned as king of England on Christmas Day, December 25, 1066.

However, this did not mean that the Norman Conquest was over. The way in which William the Conqueror had persuaded the English to accept him as their king was by pillaging and ravaging the countryside until they allowed him to undergo the coronation.

It took a further four years, from 1066 to 1070, for William the Conqueror to subdue the open Anglo-Saxon opposition to him. The fact that it took four years for William the Conqueror, preceding from south to north, to complete the Norman Conquest, had important consequences in the future.

Common Questions about the Norman Conquest of England

Q: What was the importance of the Norman Conquest in 1066?

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 altered the trajectory of England’s history, pulling it out of a Scandinavian orbit, in which it had previously moved, and into more of a continental orbit.

Q: How did the Normans conquer England?

The Norman Conquest of England began with the Battle of Hastings, in which William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon army led by Harold Godwinson. Godwinson was shot in the eye with an arrow, which turned the tide of battle, and William the Conqueror was able to have himself crowned as king of England on Christmas Day, December 25, 1066.

Q: Were the Normans French or Viking?

A group of Vikings led by Rollo had settled in Normandy in northern France to protect the northern coast of France from other Vikings. Over time these Vikings became the dukes of Normandy, they abandoned paganism and adopted Christianity, and also abandoned their Scandinavian language for the French language. So, at the time of the Norman Conquest of England, they were more French than Viking.

Q: Who invaded England in 1066?

First, the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada invaded England in 1066, and fought at the Battle of Stamford Bridge against the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson. Hardrada was defeated. Then, the duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror invaded England, also in 1066. He fought at the Battle of Hastings, in which the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxon army.

Keep Reading
The Celtic Fringe: Changes in Brittany under Norman Control
Anglo-Saxon and Viking Britain
Who Invented the Middle Ages?

Read more

What Fueled the Norman Conquest of England?
Scroll to top