AS every British schoolboy knows the Norman conquest of England occurred in 1066. In fact, 1066 is regarded as such a watershed in British history that many schoolbooks begin at that date as if the British Isles had no past before that time.
The invading army only numbered some 6,000-7,000 men and in genetic terms the impact of the Norman conquest was the least significant of the various influences ― Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman ― which have shaped the development of the British population in historical times. And yet the Conquest had far-reaching effects in many other ways.
Norman influence had already begun to penetrate England during the reign of Edward the Confessor prior to the Norman Conquest.
The Conquest itself was launched with the blessing of the Pope by William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. He landed at Pevensey in the Autumn of 1066 and began to ravage the Sussex countryside.
After defeating the invasion by the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada, the English King, Harold Godwinsson, hastened southwards meeting the Normans near Hastings.
Instead of waiting for reinforcements which would have given the English an overwhelming superiority in numbers, Harold made the rash decision of committing his army to battle. This act of impetuosity threw away the near certainty of an English victory and decisively altered the course of history.
The elite Anglo-Danish Huscarls were supplemented by hastily gathered Fyrdmen, many of whom were poorly armed. Harold's army did, however, occupy a strong defensive position along a ridge.
The Norman army approached in three lines, each divided into three divisions. The first line was made up of archers, the second of heavily-armoured soldiers on foot trained and equipped for fighting at close-quarters, and the third of cavalry.
The three divisions were ― from left to right ― Breton, Norman and 'French'.
Fighting uphill against the close packed ranks of the English army, the Normans could at first make no headway. The famous Bayeux tapestry shows Norman cavalrymen being hewed down by the massive two-handed Viking broadaxes wielded by the Huscarls.
The course of the battle only changed when a Breton flight enticed some of the Fyrdmen to break their ranks in pursuit. Seizing their opportunity, the Normans counterattacked the Fyrdmen who were now scattered and had lost the advantage of the ground.
The tactic was successfully repeated and, depleted in numbers, the English defenders were at last worn down and overcome.
A Norman chronicler quoted by Bryant wrote:
"In the English ranks the only movement was the dropping of the dead . . . They were ever ready with their steel, those sons of the old Saxon race, the most dauntless of men." (The Medieval Foundation, Collins 1966, Pg- 77).
In a truly heroic style Harold died fighting in the ranks of the Huscarls, hacked down by a sword, incidentally, rather than wounded by an arrow.
The twilight that fell on what was henceforth to be known as Senlac Hill, was also the twilight of Anglo-Danish England, and the beginning of a new phase in British development.
It took a few years for Norman power to be consolidated. In the Summer of 1069 a Danish invasion army was welcomed by the Anglo-Danish inhabitants of the Danelaw, who rose in revolt to drive out the Normans. William responded by harrying the North of England in a ruthless and genocidal manner.
In 1070 the Danes switched their attack to the southern part of the Danelaw in order to join forces with Hereward on the Isle of Ely. After holding out for almost a year, Hereward was betrayed by the Ely monks, and passed into legend.
(It is interesting to note that the national heroes of our early history were all symbols of resistance to successive (and eventually successful) waves of invaders. We identify with Boudicca who led an unsuccessful revolt against the Romans; Arthur, the Romano-British Celt whose culture was submerged by the Anglo-Saxons; Alfred, the Anglo-Saxon who could not stop the Danes; and Hereward ― the Dane who was defeated by the Normans!)
The Normans were the descendants of Danish Vikings who had settled in north-west France, establishing their power at Rouen and Bayeux.
In 911 the King of France made the best of the inevitable by granting the Viking leader Hrolf Ganger the land as a fief in return for which he assumed its defence against further depradations.
The Vikings were baptized Christians, took French wives, and adopted the French language.
They did not, however, allow their conversion to Christianity to interfere with their widespread practice of (informal) polygamy. Thus while the Viking element in the Norman ruling class was diluted by intermarriage, Viking genes were spread amongst the masses by illicit unions.
Both William and his half-brother, Odo, were illegitimate, and this proved no bar to William being Duke of Normandy or Odo being Bishop of Bayeux.
If the Normans were themselves hybrids, what sort of population had their Viking forebears hybridized with?
The northern part of France was, and is of course, the most Nordic racially. The northern Gauls were true Celts ― that is they were Nordids as well as being the bearers of Celtic culture. France received a further infusion of Nordid genes during the Germanic Völkerwanderung. Saxons, coming by sea, had settled in the harbours of the north and west while the Franks occupied the interior.
Brøndsted describes Normandy as "a mixed Nordic-Frankish duchy" (The Vikings, Penguin 1965, p. 262), while Wise differentiates "Upper Normandy, where lay the capital of Rouen and the strongest Frankish influence, and Lower Normandy, where the Scandinavian influence and customs of William's Viking ancestors remained the strongest." (1066: Year of Destiny, Osprey 1979, p. 95).
Only the central division of the Norman army at Hastings were actually Normans, the rest as we have already said being Bretons and 'French'.
Norman cavalry from the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bretons were the descendants of Celts who had fled Britain not to escape the Anglo-Saxons, but attacks launched from Ireland. (The Evolution of Man and Society by Darlington, George Allen and Unwin 1969, p. 435). The so-called 'French' contingent was mainly composed of Flemings ― direct descendants of the Franks who had retained their Germanic speech, while even its French speakers must to a large extent have been of Frankish origin.
The Norman incursion was of only a few thousand knights and men-at-arms into a population of between one-and-a-half and two million. Its genetic impact fell almost exclusively on the ruling class.
Between 1066 and 1071 about half England's thegns had been killed in battle or rebellion. Others fled to Scotland where they reinforced the predominantly Saxon population of the lowlands, or even joined the Byzantine Varangian Guard.
While William brought his own wife to England, it seems likely that many other Normans took English wives, English womenfolk thus making a significant contribution to the succeeding Norman aristocracy.
The disparity in numbers ensured that the effects of hybridization weighed more heavily on the Normans than on the English.
The direct genetic effects were in any case probably outweighed by the indirect effects. Just as the Normans had closed Normandy to the further inroads of their Viking kinsmen, so then did England become protected, never again suffering an invasion by force of arms.
The most significant Norman contribution to English society was the growth of feudalism: a centralized and structured system based on land ownership by a warrior caste. English society followed the classic pattern of feudalism, being dominated by men of alien speech who naturally clung together.
The early English Offa of Mercia (757-796) had styled himself Rex Anglorum ― King of the English, but the Norman monarchs and their successors have been Kings and Queens of England. (The Fall of Saxon England by Richard Humble, Arthur Barker 1975, p. 33).
This change in style was a significant reflection of the change in relationship between king and people: there was no longer a bond of ethnic kinship ― merely a materialistic claim to the ownership of land and the people who happened to live on it. The essentially cosmopolitan nature of the British monarchy has continued to this day.
The Feudal system which the Franks had originated and the Normans had developed was at variance with the characteristic form of Indo-European societies, where the "totality of the fighting men comprised" a "sovereign assembly ― the teuta." (Ancient Europe by Stuart Piggott, Edinburgh University Press 1965, p. 80).
The great flourishing of English prose and poetry which had occurred in the century before the Norman Conquest was brought to an abrupt and devastating end. The Francophone Normans thought only Latin suitable for writing books.
By the time English re-emerged as a widely used written language it had absorbed a great deal of French and Latin vocabulary. Although this increase in vocabulary enriched the language in respect of providing us with different words for many subtle shades of meaning, it also retarded English literary development for centuries.
Perhaps the most obvious Norman legacies in Britain today are the twin symbols of Norman power and prestige: castles and cathedrals.
The Normans were responsible for introducing into England their characteristic 'motte-and-bailey' castles. The motte was an artificial mound of earth surrounded by a ditch. Its flat summit was crowned with a wooden tower and edged by a stockade. Adjoining the mound was one or more courtyards, or baileys, also surrounded by ditches. These motte-and-bailey defences laid the basic pattern for the building of the later stone castles of the Middle Ages.
The Normans were also enthusiastic church builders, their churches having the same aggressive quality as their castles.
Motte-and-bailey, County Down
Except at Hastings, infantry were not an important factor in Norman armies. The characteristic Norman warrior was a heavily-armoured horseman, with a long chain-mail shirt split for riding, helmet, kite-shaped shield, sword and spear.
It would seem from the Bayeux tapestry that rather than charge home with couched lances like their mediaeval successors, the Normans tended to carry their spears overarm and to use them for stabbing or throwing.
The Normans had evidently derived their horsemanship from the Franks, who had themselves probably derived it from the Gauls. There was, however, in their use of skirmishing tactics and the feigned retreat, a characteristically Breton flavour.
The conquest of England by comparatively small numbers was a feat parallelled elsewhere in the same era, when a few hundred Normans seized control of southern Italy from the Byzantines.
The Normans, Bretons and Flemings were not racial aliens. The racial ideal of the mediaeval aristocracy founded by the Normans was a Nordic one. And yet, while we can identify readily enough with Celts, Angles and Vikings, there is something about the Norman Conquest that will forever remain alien. Perhaps it is the fact that English (if not British) national identity was beginning to develop. The closely kindred Angles and Danes speaking mutually intelligible languages were creating a hybrid Anglo-Scandinavian culture of some achievement and greater potential.
This development was ― at its very beginning ― cut short and submerged by a few thousand French speakers who were to retard the development of English society, culture and language. They also alienated us from our Northern European heritage, and orientated us towards the Mediterranean.
Only with the breakdown of Feudalism and its replacement by the strong Tudor State of Henry and Elizabeth could national culture re-emerge and flourish.
[Parts I and II of this series appeared in issues 1 and 2 of Heritage & Destiny, and are reproduced in this website]
In this series on 'British Roots' we set out to establish the undoubted racial homogenity of the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman settlers who have together contributed the main element in the British population. Even when taken together with the earlier Mediterranid and hybrid Mediterranid-Beaker Folk inhabitants of the British Isles, the picture is still a relatively homogeneous one.
The argument used by multiracialists that the British were already a 'mongrel' population prior to the mass incursion of Coloured immigrants is simply absurd. It is based on the false idea of equating the cultural differences between the early tribal and national groups of Northern Europe with the major physical differences which exist between races.
We also set out to promote interest and pride in the way of life and achievements of our ancestors. In relating their history we have, inter alia, given due prominence to the military aspects of the struggles between them, for the arbiter in making the British what we are today was always a question of armed might.
Like it or not, military struggle is the ultimate mechanism by which the demography of nations is decided. That fact must be taken into account, not only when considering our heritage, but also in determining our destiny.