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Norman Conquest

Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror's victory at the battle of Hastings in October 1066 was followed by six years of campaigning, which irrevocably established the new king's grip on England. In the succeeding decades, the Norman kings and their followers expanded their power into Wales and Lowland Scotland. The sequence of events which led up to William's victory is uncertain, because of the existence of accounts which are contradictory and irreconcilable. It is undeniable that at some point, probably in the year 1051, an arrangement was made which William believed entitled him to claim the English succession as Edward the Confessor's legitimate heir. From William's point of view, it was irrelevant that Edward had made a similar promise on his death-bed to Harold Godwineson, since Harold had visited Normandy in 1064 or 1065 as Edward's ambassador and sworn an oath to accept William's succession. However, since this story is told exclusively in Norman sources and since later English sources cast doubt on both the purpose and the nature of the visit, it may not be the whole truth. The massive support which Harold enjoyed in 1066 shows that the English regarded him as a popular and rightly chosen king. William's belief in the legitimacy of his kingship, which was buttressed by the support which the papacy gave in and after 1066, conditioned many of the developments which followed the battle of Hastings; not only was William's kingship legal, but so also was the settlement of thousands of Normans, Flemings, Bretons, and other Frenchmen which he sanctioned. A massive take-over of English land and resources accomplished within a framework of notional legality was largely complete by 1086, the year when Domesday Book was made.

On a longer-term perspective, it is arguable that the Conquest was the last in a series of conquests of lowland Britain and itself had relatively little impact on a broader evolutionary process of economy, society, landscape, and language. The newcomers were a small military élite who were gradually assimilated into Britain and whose connections with the continent were severed with the loss of Normandy in 1204. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to think of the Norman Conquest as a decisive shift within this broader process; the England and the Britain which emerged from the Norman military take-over were surely significantly different from the one which would have developed if Harold had won. There can be no doubt that William and his successors governed through mechanisms which were essentially those of the late Old English kingdom. The new aristocracy claimed to exercise the same rights and powers over their peasants as their English predecessors had done. Not everyone, however, would accept this appearance of continuity at face value. William I, William II, and Henry I all intervened with increasing frequency in the shires; it is far from certain that Harold and his successors would have made the same use of the existing structures. At a local level, many estates were reorganized, apparently in the short term depressing the fortunes of the peasantry. It was also the case that the Conquest's creation of the cross-channel Anglo-Norman realm sucked England into the feuds between the territorial rulers of northern France and can be linked over centuries to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. The new connection with France also established cultural connections which ensured that England's place in the 12th-cent. renaissance was more closely linked to developments in France than it would otherwise have been. The Conquest extracted England from the Scandinavian political orbit which had brought about the earlier conquest by Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut and Harold Hardrada's invasion, defeated in 1066 by Harold Godwineson at the battle of Stamford Bridge. It is doubtful whether Wales, Scotland, and—ultimately—Ireland would have been as intensively colonized from England but for the presence there of a new aggressive aristocracy.

David Richard Bates

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Norman Conquest

Norman Conquest, period in English history following the defeat (1066) of King Harold of England by William, duke of Normandy, who became William I of England. The conquest was formerly thought to have brought about broad changes in all phases of English life. More recently historians have stressed the continuity of English law, institutions, and customs, but the subject remains one of controversy. The initial military conquest of England was quick and brutal. The members of the Anglo-Saxon upper class who were not killed in the battle of Hastings were almost all involved in the rebellion from 1068 to 1070 and were either killed or deprived of their lands. Thus a Norman aristocracy was superimposed on the English, and the new elite brought with it Norman feudal customs (see feudalism), which were reinforced by the need for cohesion and mutual military support among the fairly small group of conquerors. Thus the rebellions among the Norman barons were minor and short-lived, the interests of stability being paramount. To consolidate his position William used the existing Anglo-Saxon administrative system, which functioned as part of a centralized monarchical tradition. It was this tradition, as adapted by the Normans, that gave English feudalism its uniquely cohesive nature. There was little change in the administrative and judicial systems during the Norman period (usually defined as ending with the accession of the Plantagenet Henry II in 1154) and later developments were not in the nature of Norman superimpositions. William I's archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, established a separate system of canon law courts, effectively asserted the supremacy of his archdiocese, and brought the English church into closer contact with developments in Europe, particularly with the reforms of Pope Gregory VII. The Norman kings, however, successfully resisted papal encroachment on their control over episcopal appointments. The period saw many churches and castles built, the latter chiefly on the south and east coasts and on the Welsh and Scottish borders (see Norman architecture). Norman French became the language of the court and upper classes, and of literature, and had great effect on the development of the English language.

See D. J. A. Matthew, The Norman Conquest (1966); D. C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050–1100 (1969); F. M. Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166 (2d ed. 1961) and Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971); J. LePatourel, Feudal Empires: Norman and Plantagenet (1984).

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Norman Conquest

Norman Conquest (1066) Invasion of England by William I (the Conqueror), Duke of Normandy. William claimed that Edward the Confessor (d.1066) recognized him as heir to the throne of England, and he disputed the right of Harold II to be Edward's successor. William's army defeated and killed Harold at the Battle of Hastings (1066), then advanced on London, where William was accepted as king. The Normans gradually replaced the existing ruling class, lay and ecclesiastical, and Norman institutions appeared.

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