The Norman Conquests

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The Norman Conquests


Viking Legacy. It might be said that the Viking raids did not stop when the Scandinavians stopped taking part in them. If it is recognized that the Normans were the descendants of the Vikings, in military characteristics and goals as well as genealogy, then one might recognize their military endeavors against England, France, Sicily, and southern Italy as continuing Viking raids.

Birth of the Normans. It seems quite clear that when Charles the Simple gave the Viking chieftain Rollo the territory surrounding the lower Seine River in 911 there were no pretenses that either he or his followers would become “French.” Yet, shortly thereafter that is precisely the direction that they took. They adopted the French language and religion, and they began to intermarry with the local peasantry and nobility. Soon the new dukes of Normandy, as Rollo and his descendants became known, were doing homage to the French king and fighting with him in his battles, obligated it seems with a similar code as the king’s other nobles. However, these new religious, linguistic, and familial ties never seemed to have removed their military instincts nor their desire for further conquests and invasions. This situation came to a head in the second half of the eleventh century, when two successful Norman invasions took place. The first was led by a Norman adventurer, Robert Guiscard, and his brothers against Sicily and southern Italy; the second was accomplished by the Norman duke, William, known at the time as “the Bastard” because

of his illegitimate birth and later as “the Conqueror” for his subduing of England.

Rumors of Wealth. The Normans first glimpsed Sicily and southern Italy in 1016 when a group of Norman pilgrims returning from the Holy Land hired themselves out as mercenaries in the wars fought there first between the Italians and the Byzantines and later against the Muslim Arabs, who tried to take advantage of those wars to conquer these regions. In doing so, they became quite wealthy, and when news of this easily acquired wealth reached Normandy others traveled to the south as well. Among those new recruits were twelve brothers of the Hauteville family. All of these brothers were warriors of superb quality and skills, but it is one of the youngest, Robert Guiscard, who gets most of the credit for what followed. First, they led their forces against Byzantine-controlled Sicily, and then they turned their sights on southern Italy, which Robert captured between 1057 and 1071. Robert Guiscard seemed to fear nothing, and in 1053 he even captured and imprisoned Pope Leo IX at the battle of Civitate. A later Pope, Nicholas II, would employ him and his forces at different times against the Germans and Byzantines; in 1059, in recognition of this service, Nicholas named Robert as his duke and vassal. From this point until his death in 1085, Robert continued to uphold his position as the king of Sicily—a kingdom that he continued to enlarge—and defender of the Papacy, even defeating the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, in 1084 as he was besieging Rome and Pope Gregory IX.

Duke of Normandy. William the Conqueror, first as duke of Normandy and later as king of England, showed a similar military skill to that of his countrymen fighting in the Mediterranean. Coming to the ducal throne as an illegitimate heir after the untimely death of his father, Robert the Magnificent, William almost immediately had to defend his right to that throne. As such, he may have fought in and lived through more battles than any other medieval military leader. Especially as his Norman opponents were favored and funded by King Henry I of France, William was forced to win victories at Val-es-Dunes in 1047, at Mortemer in 1054, and at Varaville in 1057.Later, in 1063, he was also forced to attack and conquer the county of Maine in support of his son’s claims there, fighting again against Henry I.

Claim to the Throne. It is William’s conquest of England for which he is justifiably the most famous, for although England was of minor significance in 1066, when his invasion took place, William’s descendants there would make great political and military impacts throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. There is some dispute as to why William believed that he had a right to England. Legend based on the slimmest of historical evidence has William being named heir to the English throne by its childless king, Edward the Confessor, who had spent some time at the ducal court of Normandy when he was an exiled youth. However, when Edward died on 5 January 1066, the Anglo-Saxon assembly named his chief earl and brother-in-law, Harold Godwinsson, as king. William considered this not only an affront to his claims to the throne but also treason, as, again based on less than credible evidence, Harold was supposed to have promised William that he would support only his right to the throne.

Stamford Bridge and Hastings. William was not alone in believing that the English throne should be his. At least two others, King Harald Hardrada of Norway and King Svein Estridson of Denmark, also claimed the crown of England. Harald Hardrada even went so far as to launch his own invasion of the island kingdom, forcing King Harold to march his army from the southern coast of England, where they awaited the invasion of William, all the way to York in the north of England. At the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 Harold defeated the Norwegians; Harald Hardrada was killed in the fighting. However, King Harold was not able to celebrate this victory, as word quickly reached him that, while he was in the north, William and the Normans had landed in the south. Evidence shows that William anticipated a lengthy campaign, but that would not be necessary. Harold, flushed with recent victory, chose instead to immediately face the Norman invaders in battle. Fighting between the two armies took place on Senlac Hill, north of Hastings, on 14 October 1066. After what one historian has described as an “unusual battle” because of its uncommon length, William’s forces prevailed, killing Harold, his brothers, and many of their soldiers. Although there would still be some limited resistance, with this victory William conquered England.


Jim Bradbury, The Battle of Hastings (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1998).

R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest, second edition (Dover, N.H.: Boydell Press, 1985).

Kelly DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066 (Woodbridge, U.K. & Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999).

David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964).

Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Norman Conquest: Its Setting and Impact (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966).

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The Norman Conquests

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