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The Norman Conquest: A Bloody Invasion with Far-Reaching Consequences

This 11th-century takeover changed the fate of England.

norman conquest

The Norman Conquest occurred in the 11th century when William I, Duke of Normandy, invaded Britain in a successful attempt to take over the English throne. His victory at the Battle of Hastings led to an upheaval in English politics and society that greatly impacted the state of the country.

The conquest was a result of longstanding political turmoil that began during Edward the Confessor’s reign in England. As a childless ruler, Edward strategically ensured others' loyalty to him by promising the throne to multiple men.

In January 1066, Edward died and was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. However, this decision was contested by William, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and even the exiled Tostig, who was Harold's brother. They started plotting to overthrow Harold. 

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Tostig and Harald III raided the southern and eastern coasts of England, causing Harold’s forces to split up and spread themselves thin. The challengers moved north and eventually reached York. On September 25, 1066, the Battle of Stamford Bridge was fought and won by Harold. Both Tostig and Harald perished in the fight.

This unlikely victory left Harold vulnerable to the invasion by William. It quickly became a cat-and-mouse chase between William and Harold as the former's troops moved into Hastings. With rumors of William’s death, his army almost fell into chaos—until he removed his helmet and revealed that he was still alive. As the battle commenced, his troops wore down the English until William finally won, earning him the nickname William the Conqueror. Harold was killed in battle, and William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day in 1066. 

Historian Marc Morris wrote The Norman Conquest, a national bestseller, in which he discusses the complexities of the invasion’s lasting impact and brings a fresh perspective to the infamous conquest. In the following passage, Morris describes the rebellious atmosphere after William’s victory, as well as the political and religious upheaval that followed his coronation for years to come.

Read an excerpt from The Norman Conquest below, then download the book today.

At Easter 1070 William was crowned for a second time. The ceremony, which on this occasion took place in Winchester, passed without any reported hitches, and was designed, like the recent crown-wearing in York, to provide an emphatic statement of the Conqueror’s legitimacy. Some time earlier, the king had petitioned his friend and supporter, Pope Alexander, for assistance in bolstering his rule, and Alexander had responded by sending to England a legation composed of two cardinals and a bishop. It was these men, explains Orderic Vitalis, who solemnly re-crowned William that Easter, underscoring his position as the pope’s most cherished son.

A new coronation was not the only reason for the cardinals’ visit; another was the Normans’ pressing need for atonement. Even by the competitive standards of the eleventh century, the king and his fellow warriors had been responsible for spilling an exceptionally large amount of blood. Indeed, it seems possible that some of the opposition the Conqueror faced during the campaign of 1069–70 might have been due not merely to physical hardship but also to moral objections. Orderic Vitalis names at least one Norman who returned home at this point declining to have any further part in the Conquest, and chronicle accounts of the Harrying suggest that, even in an age familiar with such atrocities, the scale of the human suffering was felt by some to be shocking.

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William was acutely conscious of such criticism and the need to diffuse it. At an earlier stage in the Conquest, probably on the occasion of his victorious homecoming at Easter 1067, the bishops of Normandy had instituted a set of penances for those who had participated in the Hastings campaign; they survive in a fascinating document known today as the Penitential Ordinance. Since this was a highly unusual measure, and the Conqueror’s control over the Norman Church is well established, we can reasonably assume that he personally approved it, and regard it as a reflection of his ongoing desire to have his actions seen as legitimate.

In general the penances imposed by the Ordinance seem fairly heavy: ‘Anyone who knows that he killed a man in the great battle must do one year’s penance for each man he killed … Anyone who wounded a man, and does not know whether he killed him or not, must do penance for forty days for each man he struck’: by these reckonings the more practised warriors in William’s army were going to be doing penance for an extremely long time. There were, however, other clauses designed to lighten the burden in certain circumstances. Archers, for example, who could not possibly know how many they killed or wounded, were permitted to do penance for three Lents. In fact, as another clause made clear, anyone unable to recall his precise body count could, at the discretion of his local bishop, do penance for one day a week for the rest of his life; alternatively, he could redeem his sin by either endowing or building a church. This last, of course, was the option chosen by William himself. At some point in the early years of the Conquest, the king caused Battle Abbey to be founded on the site of the field of Hastings, its purpose both to commemorate the victory and atone for the bloodshed.

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The provisions of the Ordinance also extended into the post-Hastings period, acknowledging that William’s men may have faced resistance when looking for food, but imposing stiffer penances for those who killed while in pursuit of plunder. The cut-off point was the coronation: any killings carried out thereafter were deemed to be regular homicides, wilfully committed, and hence subject to regular (i.e. stricter) penalties. But once again there was an exception: the same special penances would apply even after the coronation, if any of those killed were in arms against the king. This, of course, meant that the Penitential Ordinance, although probably drafted in the months after Hastings, could also cover the years of violence that had followed, and the fact that it survives only in English sources in connection with the papal legation of 1070 strongly suggests that it was confirmed or reissued at this point – again, doubtless on the express orders of the king.

norman conquest
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  • Depiction of Harold's death in battle.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The principal reason for the legates’ visit, however, was neither legitimization nor atonement but reform. ‘They took part in much business up and down the country, as they found needful in regions which lacked ecclesiastical order and discipline’, says Orderic Vitalis. The lax state of the English Church had been one of the main arguments put forward by William to secure papal support for the Conquest, so it was hardly surprising to find the legates engaged in such work. In one sense this was simply a policy intended from the outset, delayed by the years of rebellion.

At the same time, the rebellion itself clearly influenced the nature of the reform that was undertaken. At the start of his reign the Conqueror had promised to uphold established law and custom, and had confirmed the majority of his subjects in their lands and titles. But if the period 1068–70 had proved one thing, it was that Englishmen could not be trusted. Time and again William had forgiven certain individuals, only to have them rebel again once his back was turned. With laymen he was able to take a tough line by confiscating their estates and thus depriving them of their place in society, but with churchmen the task was not so simple. The most recalcitrant clergy had already removed themselves, either by dying in battle or fleeing into exile, while a few others appear to have been subject to summary sentences – most notably Æthelric, the former bishop of Durham, and his brother, Æthelwine, the sitting bishop, respectively arrested and outlawed during the summer of 1069, presumably for having supported the northern rebels. But kings could not simply start deposing and replacing senior churchmen, however culpable or untrustworthy they seemed.

Papal legates, on the other hand, could. Soon after Easter, in a specially convened council at Winchester, reform of the English Church began with the dismissal of Archbishop Stigand. In many respects, of course, it was surprising that Stigand had not been removed sooner. He was, after all, the Godwine candidate for Canterbury, uncanonically installed in 1052 after the flight of his Norman predecessor, Robert of Jumièges, and this indeed formed part of the charge sheet against him at Winchester. The other main plank of the prosecution’s case – one which was impossible to contest – was pluralism: despite his promotion to Canterbury, Stigand had continued to serve as bishop of Winchester. Since he had already been excommunicated on these grounds by the pope it can hardly have been a surprise that he was in due course deposed by the legates. His survival prior to this point was probably due to the wealth and influence attributed to him by William of Poitiers, and also his advanced years: a career that had started in 1020 could not have been expected in 1066 to last very much longer. By 1070, however, William had clearly grown tired of waiting for the inevitable and had abandoned any pretence of deferring to English sentiment: the archbishop was an embarrassment and therefore had to go.

But Stigand was far from being the only casualty. Either in the same council at Winchester, or else during a second synod held a few weeks later at Windsor, three other English bishops were similarly expelled from office. In the case of Leofwine, bishop of Lichfield, we know that part of the case against him was a charge of ‘carnal incontinence’: he had a wife and children. A similar case may have been brought against Æthelmaer of East Anglia, for he too was a married man. As for Æthelric, bishop of Sussex, we have no idea what the charge was, but it cannot have been very convincing: the following year the pope ordered the case be reviewed and the bishop reinstated (an order which was ignored).

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It is amply clear from both their concentration and their timing that these depositions were political. Æthelmaer and Leofwine may have been married, but so too were countless other clerics (including, in Æthelmær’s case, the man appointed as his successor). The real reason for their dismissal is apparent from their connections: Leofwine was a leading light in the affinity of the earls of Mercia; Æthelmser was Stigand’s brother. What William was doing in 1070 was sweeping the board clean of bishops whose loyalties he considered to be suspect. The moral or canonical case against Æthelric of Sussex was clearly very weak, but in the king’s eyes he must have constituted a major security threat, for he was not only deposed but imprisoned: ‘kept under guard at Marlborough’, in the words of John of Worcester, ‘even though he was guiltless’.

norman conquest
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  • William the Conqueror.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

It was, of course, a virtual replay of events in Normandy sixteen years earlier, when Archbishop Mauger of Rouen had been removed from office in the wake of a rebellion in which he was suspected of being complicit. On that occasion, too, William had been careful to follow procedure, and the accused had been condemned on account of his supposed moral failings by a council headed by a papal legate. Indeed, if the English episcopate had been paying any attention to the Conqueror’s earlier career, they might have read the writing on the wall from the moment of the legates’ arrival in 1070, for the bishop in charge of proceedings was none other than Ermenfrid of Sion, the same man who had presided over Mauger’s downfall.

That said, the exercise in 1070 was conducted on a far larger scale; it was not just the bishops who were purged at Winchester and Windsor. ‘Many abbots were there deposed’, says John of Worcester, and although he names no names it seems likely that the cull included the abbots of Abingdon, St Albans and St Augustine’s Canterbury, all of whom lost their positions – and in some cases their liberty – around this time. The king, says John, ‘stripped of their offices many bishops and abbots who had not been condemned for any obvious cause, whether of conciliar or secular law. He kept them in prison for life simply on suspicion (as we have said) of being opposed to the new kingdom.’

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Naturally, their replacements were Normans. For obvious reasons William preferred to promote men he knew personally, and so turned in the first instance to the clerks of his own chapel. The bishoprics of Winchester, East Anglia, Sussex and Lichfield were in each case filled by former royal chaplains, as was the archbishopric of York, vacated the previous year by the death of Ealdred. Only in the case of Durham did the king depart from this practice, installing instead a Lotharingian priest by the name of Walcher. The net result of these new appointments was that the higher echelons of the English Church were transformed, just as surely and swiftly as the secular aristocracy had been transformed by the Battle of Hastings and the subsequent rebellions. By the time the purge of 1070 was over, only three of England’s fifteen bishoprics were held by Englishmen.

The plunder of its monastic riches during Lent; the deposition of many of its leaders during the spring: clearly 1070 was already shaping up to be an annus horribilis for the English Church. But in the course of the same year, it seems, the Church had to absorb yet another blow, when the Conqueror imposed on many of its bishoprics and abbeys the novel burden of military service.

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