The Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold Godwinson on 14th October 1066, is where for a lot of people, the history of England as a united country begins. A clear and obvious break from the traditional Anglo-Saxon world of Alfreds, Æthelstans and Æthelflæds, a new pan European world is introduced at the tip of a now world famous arrow and its safe say, England would never be the same again.
Bayeux Tapestry scene of Battle of Hastings showing knights and horses SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
It seemed as if from the moment Edward, known to history as ‘the confessor’, took the English throne in 1042, that a succession crisis was likely. Edward was known for his celibacy and never produced an heir, leaving the door open for many a claimant on the English throne. Many are familiar with the events leading up to and concerning the year 1066, including the Scandinavian invasion courtesy of Harald Hardrada and the ultimate showdown between Harold II of England and William ‘The Bastard’ of Normandy but what are the effects of such a calamitous year?
By the late afternoon of 14th October, most of the English nobility, including their king were dead, leaving a political void soon filled by the Norman, Breton and French nobles brought over with the soon to be crowned, William I. With the introduction of a completely new landed elite came with it new legal reforms, language, and a completely different political system focused around knightly service known as the feudal system. The introduction of feudal service utterly changed how and by who land was owned, making the poor majority farm and produce for the rich and wealthy in exchange for military protection. The fact that virtually non of the land owners spoke the vernacular language known as Anglo-Saxon or old English meant that the language of Court and of the law was converted, almost instantly to Norman French, introducing many words into our vocabulary that we till use today. Many of the words that were introduced tended to refer to the finer things in life as most who spoke the language cared little for the ‘cow’ that their ‘beef’ (from the French boeuf) came from and why the words ‘judge’, ‘jury’, ‘pedigree’ and ‘sovereign’, all words synonymous with power and status, have French rather than Anglo-Saxon origins.
As much as the invasion caused obvious and almost instant changes, arguably the most changing effects occurred over time. Before the conquest, A large proportion of the Anglo-Saxon population (somewhere between 10 and 30%) were slaves, a relic of the Roman influence on the British Isles. Slavery was seen as barbaric and was on the decline in Normandy and within just a few short decades, slavery in England was all but replaced by Serfdom, a still very restrictive way of life where a person is tied to the land they worked. Another crucial part of normal life that changed slowly was that of names, with the age of Edwards, Mildreds, Edmunds, Godgifus and Harolds at an end. Before long, names popular within the French and Norman nobility such as; William, Henry, Matilda and Richard were far more common amongst all social classes.To go along side the name changes, the religious and architectural landscape would change also. Started by Edward the Confessor and really turned up after the conquest, the building of both castles and Norman style churches became common place across England. To go along with the new churches, the veneration of Anglo-Saxon saints was all but stopped in an attempt to bring England in line with the Norman norms.
Not everything changed
Even though much of life in England was forever changed by the Norman invasion, life for the regular person changed very little. Yes, the odd French word creeped into the local vocabulary and there were mailed men on horseback chasing down thieves but, the fields were still ploughed and the cow still milked and at the end of the day, life was still hard and short. William the Conquerer and his ancestors forever tied England to France and arguably caused a millennium of fighting, but the Normans were one of the many sub cultures who made up the medieval melting pot that today is England.