So the Normans invaded England in 1066. What happened next?

Most people who know any English history know about the Norman invasion, that moment when Anglo-Saxon (and, um,yeah, somewhat Norse) England was taken over by French-speaking colonizers, guaranteeing that Frideswide and Aelfgifu no longer top the English list of popular baby names. But what happened after the conquest to make the country cohere?

More than I have space for, but let’s snatch a few stray bits of paper from history’s gale-force winds and see what we can do with them.

And by we, of course, I mean me, since you’re not actually here as I type this.


Obviously relevant photo: This is Li’l Red Cat, not William the Conqueror, but you can see why a person might get confused.

The replacement of the ruling class

Ten minutes before the Norman invasion, England’s old ruling class was Anglo-Saxon with a bit of Norse embroidery. By the time the conquerors solidified their hold, most of it had been replaced with Normans. William the Conqueror had followers to reward, and the thing about followers is that if you don’t keep them happy, they’ll turn on you. They’re big, they’re armed, and they can get nasty. And there are always more of them than there are of you. So he needed to hand them goodies, and we all know where goodies come from after a war: the people who lost. 

The land belonging to most of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class was confiscated and given to William’s followers. And since land and wealth were pretty much the same thing, we’re not talking about a new, Norman ruling class.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.


The non-replacement of the ruling class

But no story’s ever simple. William made efforts to keep the old ruling class on his side and pretty much limited his confiscations to the nobles who rose against him. So there was an Anglo-Saxon elite that collaborated with the Normans, kept their lands, and adopted the French language and culture. They became Frenchified and separated from the commoners. English was now the language of the peasants and French of the landlords.


Why didn’t England rise against the Normans?

The English outnumbered the Normans a hundred to one. So why didn’t they resist?

People who haven’t a clue what’s involved always seem to ask this about the conquered, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear a hint that it might be the conquered people’s own damn fault. They didn’t fight back, did they? They didn’t have the old warrior spirit. Or their weapons were too primitive. Or–well, you know, something.

The thing is, the Anglo-Saxons did rise against the Normans. Multiple times, and some of the uprisings presented serious threats. The thing is, they lost, and for multiple reasons. 

The leaders of all or most of the rebellions were the old aristocracy. At the time, there was an inevitability about that. The aristocrats weren’t just the governing class, they were also the warrior class. We’re still hundreds of years away from ordinary people leading their own rebellions. This was a hierarchical society. Soldiers fought. Peasants peasanted. Maybe their lords drafted them in to carry agricultural tools onto the battlefield and shout threatening slogans in front of the cameras, but they weren’t trained soldiers. So for the time being, the aristocrats are the people to keep your eye on. 

But after the Battle of Hastings, where the native English government was defeated, a big chunk of the aristocracy died. That was inconvenient, not just for them individually but for the chances of a successful rebellion, because there went its leadership. 

According to one theory, so many of them died because the Anglo-Saxons were behind the times militarily. The Normans swept into the Battle of Hastings using a new European tactic, the heavy cavalry charge, with the lances used for charging, not throwing. 

So although people did rise against the Normans, the rebellions were crushed. The leaders who didn’t die fled the country. 

Which was convenient for William, who handed their lands to Normans.

Another factor weighing against the rebels was that England was a country with a history not just of division but of outright warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse

Okay, not just warfare. They threw in a fair few massacres just to demonstrate how serious everyone was about this. So they wouldn’t have been an easy bunch to unite. And for many ordinary people, peace under a brutal leader who spoke a language no one understood might have looked better than more warfare.

The church would’ve been another place ordinary people looked for leadership, but it took the Normans’ side. So no help there.

Landscape may or may not have worked against the rebels. In some accounts,they melted into the woods, Robin Hood-like, emerging to fight a guerrilla war. In other accounts, southern England had no natural hiding places where a rebel army could base itself. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two accounts. It’s possible that the land could hide small bands, but not whole armies, but I wouldn’t take my word for that. It’s a reckless guess. I’ll leave it to you to resolve the contradiction.

Or not.


And those defeats led to what?

According to David Horspool, in The English Rebel, the risings against the Normans were persistent and serious, and one outcome was that William the Conqueror abandoned his early efforts to enlist the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in a Norman government. 

“The top of England’s post-Conquest society, both lay and ecclesiastical, became almost entirely Norman,” he writes.

They also led to a longstanding mythology of English rebellions, which holds that before the Conquest England was a free land. Then the Normans came and all that freedom died. 

That the Normans brought extensive suffering is unquestionable. That Anglo-Saxon England was a land of freedom, though, is at best open to argument. Especially since slavery was deeply woven into the structure.


A note on sources and theories

I’m drawing from two books here: The English Rebel, by David Horspool, and The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes. It may not really be the shortest–I found one with a lighter page count, but it may have more words. I confess that I haven’t counted them. They’re both well worth reading. 

Hawes’ argues that intermarriage meant the English elite was more open to new members than any other elite in Europe. All you had to be was rich, fluent in French, and willing to speak it at all social and political occasions. 

Of course, you also had to start as part of an almost-parallel elite. Entry wasn’t open to a serf. Or even, say, a free glove maker.

In the long run, this relative openness had important ramifications, one of which was that the Anglo-Saxon elite separated itself from the Anglo-Saxon commoners, leaving them leaderless. Another was that culture became synonymous with Norman culture. The Anglo-Saxon culture and language were left to people who–in the eyes of their rulers–had no culture.

Hawes says this it was an unusual pattern in Europe until England grew up and visited it on its neighbors when it became their colonizers.

Hawes is the only historian I’ve found who talks about the Normans having a technological edge in battle. Everyone else talks about Harold–the king who lost at Hastings–having just marched from the  north, where he fought off one invasion, to the south coast to fight with exhausted troops. They talk about his decision not to rest before this second fight. 

I have no idea if Hawes is onto something there. Again, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who’s right.

50 thoughts on “So the Normans invaded England in 1066. What happened next?

  1. I’m not too sure when this (coming in the next sentence) idea gained weight , but it seems it might be at least part of the story.
    There was a theory doing the rounds about the mid 20th century [it may have been floated before then] that the Normans won because they had stirrups and were jolly good horsemen. Having stirrups meant they could stand-in -saddle and fire arrows and reload more quickly.
    But I think that the camp that holds that to be the reason William won might be pushing it a bit far.
    Still, the stirrup did give ’em a good edge.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Up until today my knowledge of British history was pretty much William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 a.d.
    That’s Texas world history for you.
    Now I’m way smarter thanks to you but probably still not ready for Jeopardy.
    The gods of catdom have awarded Pretty and me a stray cat in our carport which, thanks to Pretty, has a permanent place there. I am in charge of feeding, water, etc. however since Pretty is very busy with her antique empire and all I do is manage the kennel. Oh, and yes, drop a few pictures and words on my computer periodically which is not that significant.
    I’m sure you and the very cute L’il Red Cat can relate.
    Have a very good weekend.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Probably there is a certain amount of luck involved in the fact that arrow pierced Harold’s eye. It could have just as easily have bounced off his helmet and then what.?
    One theory over here is that the Natives outnumbered the incomers but could never unite suitably for ling enough to do any good (eg : Tecumseh; the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Big Horn) Part of this was because by their way of life (how many “tribal leaders” are part of the chaos in Afghanistan ?)
    But the Anglos-Saxons and Normans seem to have blended into a functioning citzenry…maybe because the Normans didn’t start packing off the Anglo-Saxon children to boarding school to teach them how to be Norman ?

    I googled whther William had red hair – based on your comparison with your cat – and got referred to “” where it says researchers do suspect he had “ginger hair.”
    so it IS possible your kitten is onto something ! Is Fast Eddie an Anglo-Saxon kitty ? ( He doesn’t appear to be Persian.)

    Liked by 5 people

    • Ginger hair, here, is what you and I would call red. And what Ida and I call a red cat is known as a ginger. On that evidence, an outsider would say Li’l Red’s an American cat, but he was born in Cornwall. By one definition of who’s Cornish, you have to have four generations buried in Cornish ground, he qualifies as Cornish.

      In the history of conquest as far as I know it (and that’s not all that far–a few random snatches and rags), the conquerors always manage to exploit existing divisions. The people you’ve lived next to for eons always look like more of a threat than the incomers, who look like they can be used in the ongoing fights. It’s only afterward that you realize you have more in common with your old enemy than with these damned interlopers.

      If the spaceships land and turn out not to have our best interests at heart, I expect the process will be the same.

      To a large extent, the Norman and Anglo-Saxon descendants are impossible to sort out these days, but I did read somewhere that the income of people with Norman surnames is significantly higher than those with Anglo-Saxon surnames.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fast Eddie hasn’t been won over by the little guy’s onslaught of cute, but he’s not as spooked as he was at first. We’ve still got one rooom sectioned off as a no-kitten zone, so Eddie can relax there, and initially I was feeding him there but at some point he made it clear that he wanted to march through the rest of the house, so now he does that once or twice a day, eats some food there (and some in the no-kitten zone),. He bops the kitten on the head for a bit, then runs off as if the hounds of hell were chasing him.

      This is, actually, improvement. At least I’m not worrying that he’ll leave completely and go feral.

      Thanks for asking, Audrey.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I had to go check. Sort of but not exactly. The white extends back around his neck, so maybe an upside down one on a ribbon. But then there’s white coming up from his belly as well.

      And I’ll have you know I disturbed his nap for that. I wouldn’t do that for just any random question, but this was important.

      It’s an odd and fascinating old language, isn’t it? I remember having a foreign-born student once (I can’t remember where she was from–maybe Somalia) who asked why English had so many words for the same thing. “We don’t do that in my language,” she said. “We have one word for one thing.”

      Well, gee. I’d never thought about a language doing that.


  4. Thanks for the interesting insights! Referring to your words about the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy: have you read the novel “Ivanhoe” by Walter Scott? The story plays in the period around 1190. Protagonist Wilfred of Ivanhoe is disinherited by his father Cedric of Rotherwood for supporting the Norman King Richard and for falling in love with the Lady Rowena, a descendant of the Saxon Kings of England. Cedric planned to have Rowena marry the powerful Lord Athelstane, a pretender to the Crown of England by his descent from the last Saxon King. It’s worth reading how even 100 years after the Norman conquest, a part of the Anglo-Saxon nobility were still mourning the outcome of 1066…

    Liked by 2 people

    • At some point in high school, we read Ivanhoe in an English class, and I not only hated it, the entire historical background zipped right over my clueless little head. I can’t remember who our teacher was, but now that you’ve filled in the background (thank you for that–I genuinely had no idea) it strikes me that it would’ve been a clever thing for our teacher to have done. I hadn’t even heard ot the Norman conquest at that point. Our history classes skipped over it. As far as I remember the English/British history we learned, it was Henry VIII, Bad King George, and oh, there was an empire somewhere out there.

      I’m not a big fan of the way we were taught history. Our English classes were usually better, but this one misfired. The only thing I remember was some sort of fight/joust/event and recurring references to some character who was beautiful in spite of being Jewish. I doubt that won W. Scott a lot of points in a class made up in large part of Jewish kids.

      It’d be interesting to see how I’d feel about the book today.

      Liked by 2 people

      • That Scott…supposedly based Rebecca on an actual historical person who was remembered more for being *good* than for being beautiful, though she was apparently both. But it was like him to think her good works were boring and just rave about her pretty face.

        Someone in Maryland did an historical study of her and I don’t even remember the real woman’s name, except that it was not Rebecca. Someone did an historical study of the model for the bold and beautiful slave women in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” too–she was the manager of a house of ill repute in DC–and I’ve forgotten her name too, except that it was not Cassy. I should’ve written such things down but I didn’t. Now it’s been twenty years and no one else in Virginia seems interested in Maryland or DC history. Anyway it might relieve your feelings about Scott’s Rebecca to know that she was based on a real person, and if that person had a crush on an Anglo-Saxon like fictional Ivanhoe, it was not documented. Only that a lot of Anglo-Saxons “loved” her, as in admired with gratitude.

        In another novel he made my great-greats look like idiots, too, partly by combining the biographies of two different women who probably never even met. And he used their real names…if the woman who died without issue had had any descendants, they could’ve sued him for printing outright lies about her. Jewish readers got off easily with Rebecca.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s never wise to mix fact with fiction if you don’t want to get sued.

          I occasionally think I should go back and look at Scott to see if he’s as leaden as I thought in high school. You’ve convinced me not to bother. Unless, of course, I’m stranded in a cabin during a blizzard with nothing but a copy of Ivanhoe, in which case desperation would drive me to it.


  5. Well – on the authority of W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman – I can answer the question of what happened after 1066 with: “Not much of note.”

    However, that is a stellar photo of a superb cat and clearly, the cats who saved the Intertubes are what matter most.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You didn’t mention the harrowing of the north. William laid waste to the north of England in 1069 burning all stores of food so the locals had to eat the brains of the dead. I think that counts as putting down a rebellion. Things don’t change do they – HS2, Northern powerhouse, levelling up!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I claim a partial exemption there on the grounds that I did write about it elsewhere, but you’re right, it deserved a mention here. As an outsider, I’m fascinated by the North/South divide and keep meaning to write about it but have been putting it off in favor of–um–topics I can research more quickly.


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