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William I, the Conqueror
Norman Monarchs

1066-1087 William (the Conqueror) I
1087-1100 William (Rufus) II
1100-1135 Henry I
1135-1154 Stephen & Matilda

1154- The House of Plantagenet
See also: Medieval Britain

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William I, the Conqueror
Before the Conquest

The pious Edward the Confessor, last Saxon king of England, had his heart more in a French cloister than in the council chamber of his English kingdom and, although he married the daughter of Earl Godwin of Wessex who, effectively, ruled the country, the Confessor did not produce an heir to the English throne.

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William I, the Conqueror

William, Duke of Normandy, claimed that the Confessor had promised him the Crown of England (although the king had no right to do so as the succession had to be approved by the Witangamoot) and that Earl Godwin's son Harold who was elected by the Witan as successor to the Confessor in 1066 had sworn a sacred oath pledging William the crown.

Regardless of the validity of the oaths, William of Normandy obtained the blessing of the Church to invade England and wrested the crown from Harold by killing him and defeating the English army at the Battle of Hastings or Senlac (which took place near the village of Battle in Sussex) in 1066. He was crowned in London on Christmas Day.

It was to be five years before WIlliam I subdued the English - subsequent revolts against him were by the powerful Norman barons. All opposition to the King was dealt with ruthlessly.

The Conqueror ordered the compiling of the Domesday Book to assess the realm for taxation in 1086 and died in the following year to be succeeded by his eldest son William (Rufus) II.

 William I 'the Conqueror' (1066-87)

Norman Britain: Monarchs
William II   'Rufus '

William II was surnamed 'Rufus ' either becuase of his red hair or because his face would flush during his frequent rages. Far from popular, Rufus was killed by an arrow under suspicious circumstances while hunting in the New Forest in 1100. He was succeeded by his brother Henry I

 William II (Rufus) of England

Norman Britain: Monarchs
Henry I

Henry I established the rule of law in England protecting the vassals of the barons of the realm by sending his ministers to sit in judgement in the kings courts throughout the land. He did not do so because of particularly virtuous character but because he appreciated that the king could only be prosperous if his realm was prosperous and that this was impossible in a lawless kingdom where the law was administered at the whim of local magnates. Henry made his peace with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury with whom his brother William (Rufus) II had quarelled and made vast improvements in the system for collecting the royal revenues.

Henry I married the daughter of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland.

 Henry I of England (1100-1135)

Norman Britain: Monarchs
Stephen & Matilda

The drowning of Henry I's only son in the sinking of the White ship off the coast of Farnce left the Norman dynasty without a male heir and, although the Witan had agreed that his daughter Maud or Matilda should succeed to the throne on Henry's death, the crown was contested by Stephen of Blois and the events which followed not only destroyed Henry I's legal and administrative reforms, but threw England into a long and protracted civil war. A year before his death, peace was established between the two contenders for the crown when Stephen agreed that Matilda's son Henry Plantagenet should succeed him on his death.

  King Stephen & Queen Matilda of England (1135-1154)

Norman Britian

Having won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Willliam of Normandy marched his army to London thus blocking possible opposition from the Mercian army which was to have aided Harold but ha dnot materialised. William agreed to uphold the English laws and having first chosen Edgar the Atheling, the Witangamoot changed its mind and offered the crown to The Conqueror who was crowned on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey.

The estates of those who had supported and aided Harold were forfeited and distributed amongst William's Norman, Breton or Flemming followers - in this manner, half of the English manors passed into the hands of the foreigners. More forfeitures followed over the five years following the Conquest as the English rose against their Norman rulers.

Although William I agreed to uphold the laws of the English, this was no longer done according to English customs, but the laws were interpreted by Normans according to their habits of government and, although the King still relied on the advice of the great council or Witan (which advice he was not obliged to take), it was now composed of Normans.

One of the greatest changes after the conquest was in land tenure. In Normandy the the authority of the lord over his tenant was much greater than it had been in pre-Conquest England. Before the conquest, England consisted of villages, more-or-less or at least originating as family settlements. The arable land of these settlements belonged to individuals although one would invariably hold more land than the others and was the lord of the village entitled to service from the free tenants in the form of tending the lord's land. The Saxon villages had been practically self-contained communities producing most of what they required and supplying men at arms to the shire levies when required.

The Normans, on the other hand, started with the proposition that all land within the realm was the property of the King and held of him by his tenants-in-chief in return for an agreed service. A man holding of a lord thus held of the king.

Norman Rule

The Norman unit of administration was the ' manor' which corresponded to the Saxon village or the ecclesiastical parish. Whereas in Saxon times the family were responsible for the affairs of the village, under the Normans a Lord held the manor from the king and tenants held their rights from the lord of the manor. A powerful man might hold many manors of the king, often in different parts of a county or even the country.

As well as free tenants who were only bound to their lord by owing some service in echange for the land they held, there were also serfs (called 'villeins' by the Normans) who were bound in perpituity to the service of their lord and such service was often humiliating. The Norman period saw a large decrease in the number of free tenants and a corresponding increase in the number of villeins because the lord of the manor having claimed that a man held his land by villeinage, it was very difficult to prove otherwise.
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Norman Rule

There may ahve been a tendency towards feudalism in Saxon England but with the Norman Conquest, it became the system by which society in England was organised. All land was held of the King by vassals doing him homage and undertaking military and other services in return for their holdings.

The King's vassal might bestow part of the land he held of the King on his own men in return for service but William the Conqueror ensured that such men owed homage to the King first and their immediate lord after - a man might be required to serve the King against the King's vassal who might be his immediate lord but he could not serve his feudal lord against the king. In this manner, The Conqueror ensured that powerful barons could not become a threat to himself, or at least, the threat was minimized.

Another safeguard for the monarch who had to maintain a hold over both England and Normandy across the English Channel was that the powerful barons held manors which were widely dispersed and, in the event that a baron rose against the King, he did not have a consolidated territory to draw on as a power-base. Despite this, the Norman barons did occassionaly rebel but were crushed with utter ruthlessness by the first three Norman monarchs.

The legal reforms introduced by King Henry I (1100-1135) by which jurisdiction was removed from the barons to the King's judges further weakened the barons.

Before the ConquestBibliographyDiscuss this Page
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ENGLISHRY (Englescherie)

A legal term introduced during the reign of the Conqueror (1066-1087), to the presentment of the fact that a person slain was an Englishman. If an unknown man was found slain, he was presumed to be a Norman, and the hundred was fined accordingly unless it could be proved that he was English. Englishry, if established, excused the hundred from the fine.

W Stubbs, in his Constitutional History, suggests that similar measures were possibly taken by the Danish king Canute (1017-35). Englishry was abolished in 1340.

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Roman     Saxon     Medieval    

DORSET     Feudalism

Norman Influence on the English Language

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Before the ConquestBibliographyDiscuss this Page
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Before the ConquestDiscuss this PageHits on this PageLaws
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William I, the Conqueror

History of English Law
  by Pollock and Maitland, 1895

The English and the Norman Conquest
  by Ann Williams, publisher
The Boydell Press, 1997

Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries
  by Pauline Stafford, publisher Arnold, 1989

England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225
  by Robert Bartlett, publisher Oxford University Press, 2000

The Feudal Kingdom of England, 1042-1216
  by Frank Barlow, publisher Longman, 1999

Law and Government in Medieval England and Normandy
  by George Garnett and John Hudson, publisher Cambridge University Press, 1994

Recommend a Book for this Page

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William I, the Conqueror
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