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Norman Wisdom

The Bayeux Tapestry: the invasion starts


What’s the first date you learned at school, in those dull history lessons? No question, it was of course that of the Battle of Hastings. 1066 (and All That). The date that changed English history forever. Of course, the anniversary of that fateful day fell very recently, on the 14th October.

“So what?” I hear you yawn. “Almost a thousand years ago, how on earth can you contrive a link to living, breathing history with this one?”.  Well,  I’m going to argue that there are more historical clues surviving from that great upheaval and hiding in plain sight, than you’d believe…

But first, it’s true to say, for the peasant toiling in the fields, nothing much changed. When you’re subsistence farming, wondering fearfully what trick the local overlord will try next, it probably didn’t matter who was in charge. One oppressor is very much like another, when you’re at the bottom of the pile…  

Plus ça change…

As a case in point – scientists from Sheffield and Cardiff universities recently analysed the bones of people who died in England, both just before and just after the Conquest. Changes in diet show up quite rapidly in bone infrastructure, so it’s a good way to pinpoint historical  periods of malnourishment. They found no great differences at all between the bones, other than evidence of a short-lived food shortage around the actual year of invasion. Life carried on much as usual, for humble folk.

A great read for the history buff

I’ve recently read a couple of really good books about the Norman Conquest, including this one, left, and felt bewildered by page after page of fights and intrigues between the rich and powerful families of England, France and Scandinavia.  They were all inter-related. Their family trees are so interwoven you could view the battles of that infamous year as family feuds – much like the Wars of the Roses. And throughout all the strife between aristocratic cousins, the life of the average Anglo-Saxon peasant continued in the same bleak manner.

As Dennis the Peasant says in that great film,  Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! I’m being oppressed!”.

Pardon my French

But let’s look at what actually changed for the peasant in the field. First of all, the language. It’s no accident that the motto of our monarch is still in old French: “Dieu et mon droit”. As is the motto of the Order of the Garter, bestowed by the monarch: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”. 

Henry IV – first monarch who was a native English speaker

French replaced Anglo-Saxon English as the language of the court and of the law, overnight. (The language of the church continued as Latin). The first post-conquest king of England to speak English as a first language was Henry IV in the 1400s – that’s almost four hundred years after the conquest!  Following 1066, the common folk continued to speak in the old language, gradually absorbing French words over time.  

When  you get to the mid 1300s, you have a Frenchified version of English that we would understand today. Look at this quote from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath – written around 1380 – regarding her many husbands:

Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve!
Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall.
For sothe I wol nat kepe me chaast in al.
Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon,
Som cristen man shal wedde me anon.

Perfectly understandable!

Interestingly, the difference between the labels given to the beasts of the fields, and to the meats derived from them, indicates who produced the choice meats, and who consumed them:

Ooh look, a castle!

Looking around the landscape fifty or so years after the Conquest, a peasant in the field would have been most struck by the amount of building activity going on. Perhaps he’d have scratched his head and wondered if he was in the wrong trade. William and his successors were great castle builders. Why? Because they couldn’t trust the natives. 

At first, to be fair, William did try very hard to get the defeated Anglo-Saxon noblemen on-side, by offering them the chance to keep their lands in return for loyalty. But the natives weren’t having this at all. Time after time, the native noblemen smiled to William’s face, then plotted against him and rebelled against the hated invaders.  Some native noblemen became folk heroes of the resistance – like Hereward the Wake, a thegn or lord, from around Ely in Cambridgeshire.

A cracking good read…

In the end, William lost patience. Within a few years of 1066, Norman likely lads held all but a handful of key positions in his new kingdom – second sons and such – who had travelled to England in search of rich pickings. Try Helen Kay’s book (shown right) to get the lowdown on how, as she says, “European thugs became English gentry”.

William had learned the lesson that the natives weren’t to be trusted, and so started an unprecedented program of castle building, to protect against future rebellions. Historians reckon that William  built an incredible 500 castles within 20 years of the conquest. There’s around 90 of them still around – the likes of Rochester, Durham, Colchester. When you visit, remember that they weren’t built to defend against foreign invaders  – they were built as protection against the locals!

I fought the law…

If you were higher up the social strata than the average poor peasant, you were likely to notice changes in how the law was applied. First, the language changed from Germanic Anglo-Saxon to  French. And, instead of the oral tradition that had been in place, laws were written down. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, William wasn’t too keen on slavery and so outlawed it, although perhaps the state of serfdom experienced by most peasants wasn’t that much better. 

In Anglo-Saxon England, a person accused of murder might pay weregeld – “man gold”,  to the family of the victim, in compensation for the crime. Canny William changed the law here, so that any compensation or other punishment  was ordered by and paid to the state instead. He was laying the foundations of a system of law where it was the state that took control of crime and punishment, rather than the individuals involved.

And loyal readers of this blog will remember that following the Conquest, the Men of Kent successfully petitioned for the retention of Gavelkind – their local laws of property inheritance. William introduced the completely new system of primogeniture – the eldest son takes all. That way, estates remained intact, rather than dispersed amongst all the deceased’s children. 

Pyramid selling

Arguably, the biggest change the Conqueror implemented was the concept of feudalism. It was a French system of land ownership where you had a triangle with the all-powerful king at the top, and then layers of what you could call “renters”, each owing allegiance and obligations to the person in the layer above, and extracting the same from the layer below. The bottom of the pile were of course the peasants. The Anglo-Saxon system had been somewhat similar (although historians argue to what degree), but far less rigorously structured.  It was really the Normans who enforced feudalism with a vengeance.

So, binding oaths, where you swore allegiance to the lord above you,  glued the rulers of the kingdom together. William also took the precaution of creating many new knights and earls. He dispersed his power widely,  rather than concentrate it in the hands of a few all-powerful men. 

Leeds Castle, Norman bastion

To the Manor Born

So what’s feudalism got to do with us today? Well, cast your mind back to the 1980’s and that classic sitcom, To the Manor Born. Why did multi millionaire Bedrich Polouvicek change his name to Richard DeVere? Because French-sounding names still carry great prestige in England, compared to common-place Smiths or Browns.. 

Far-fetched? In 2013, the LSE conducted a study in social mobility in the UK. They found that, far from an increase in social mobility in recent centuries, in general it had not much improved since the middle ages. The study found that Norman names, such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville, Montgomery, are still over-represented, when you look at the surnames of admissions at Oxbridge, and into elite professions such as medicine and law. The wealth created at the time of the Conquest continues to be tightly grasped within families through the centuries, barring accidents of fate…


…yes, of course things can and do go wrong. Look at poor Danny Dyer, the descendant of Norman kings, whose ancestor picked the wrong side in the English Civil War. And in fiction, there’s of course Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The tragic irony of that story is that the d’Urberville family whose son seduced Tess, borrowed the name, because of its French prestige. Whereas, poor Tess Durbyfield, daughter of a Wessex peasant, really was the descendant of  d’Urberville, the Norman knight, whose family had fallen upon hard times.

“This land ain’t your land”

(Thanks to Stewart Borland for the title and the background). How much land does the Queen own? More than you think. The land your house is on, for a start. Yes, legally, all land in the UK is the Queen’s. “But hang on”, you say. “I own the freehold of my land, so it’s mine”. Well, up to a point. You hold your freehold under what the Land Registry call a “Fee Simple”. It’s a form of feudal tenure, introduced by our friend William. So, although you can buy and sell your land and property freely, the ultimate owner is the Crown, whose rights trump yours. 

Readers of this blog may recall the post I did earlier this year about the impact of the First World War. You may remember me mentioning that during the conflict, hundreds of stately homes were unceremoniously requisitioned and converted to hospitals. The legislation around this was made infinitely easier because the land on which they stood was actually owned by the Crown. That’s also how Compulsory Purchase of land works.

And there’s another piece of Norman law still in existence that impacts we so-called “landowners”  – the law of Escheat. That means, if you die without any heirs, the land reverts to its feudal lord: the Crown. William’s feudalism lives on!

A slight diversion

When researching my family tree, I came across a London ancestor named Richard Halfknight. I was rather intrigued by the surname – how can you be a half knight, you’re either one or not, surely?  Well. a bit of research explained it all. Under the feudal system, you owed allegiance to the person above you in the social pyramid. You also had to provide men at arms, depending on how many acres of land you held from your superior. For small estates, this might only amount to half a knight. How did this work? Well, as time progressed, tenants paid their dues in good old cash, rather than in real men at arms. So Richard Halfknight’s ancestors held land that had been valued as worth half a knight’s cash equivalent, payable to the local bigwig.

Hiding in plain sight

The aftermath of that October day, almost a thousand years ago, still resounds around us. And I don’t just mean the easy bits to see – the castles.  The language we speak, a glorious mash-up of Anglo-Saxon and French. Our determinedly rigid class system, still permeated by feudalism. The fact that certain surnames still sound “posh” to us. 

Alleged site of Harold’s grave at Waltham Abbey

Some folk keep the memory of Harold and his warriors alive. A few years ago, I visited Waltham Abbey, in Essex. It’s the supposed burial place of Harold. After the battle, his mistress, the wonderfully named Edith Swan-neck,  retrieved Harold’s body. She brought Harold’s body to the Abbey, because he had been a generous benefactor, and so they owed him. There’s a stone there, allegedly marking the place of his burial. On the day of my visit, there was a bouquet of red roses by the stone, with a card saying “To Harold, last English King”.  I have to confess also, that on my recent visit to Ely cathedral, I lit a candle to Hereward, who tried and failed to drive the invader from his lands. Why? Because history is real, and here and now.

Finally,  I did smile sadly at this notice in a newspaper, printed on 14th October just gone: