The Norman Conquest: The Impact
Modern English patriots view the Battle of Hastings as a national catastrophe; the year 1066 is the most well-known date throughout English citizens. “No other conquest in European history has had such disastrous consequences for the defeated”. However, modern England owes their government, culture, and language to the ideas the Normans brought.
In the early years after the Conquest, Englishmen who pledged their allegiance to the King were allowed to keep their land. Nevertheless, between 1067 and 1070, there were many uprisings against the Norman rule, including at least one disturbance each year. Many English, though, cooperated with the new rulers.
The English “resented becoming an oppressed majority in their own country”. In fact, there were only about 10,000 Normans living among one or two million Saxons. To protect themselves, the Normans lived in small units. They built castles from which a small group could rule a large area and population. More than 4,000 landowners were replaced and forced to turn over their land to less than 200 barons. England and Normandy now shared a ruler, forming a connection between the two areas. William, still a Norman Duke in addition to his English title, owed his allegiance to the King of France, and therefore English politics became French politics.
Because of the allegiance William still owed to France, he spent most of his time there, instead of in the country he ruled. This was a major change from the previous rulers, who lived in the country. William never really liked England or its people. He gave up trying to learn the language and only stayed in the country when it was absolutely necessary. As a result, he had to plan for when he would be absent. Under normal circumstances, a family member would act as regent while the king was away. However, William had no relatives whom he trusted enough to leave England in their hands. This began the tradition of one of the king’s servants, usually a bishop, representing the king while he was away.
Another political change in England was the formation of Anglo-Norman feudalism. Several features of feudalism are: “vassalage, military groupings, and the fragmentation of authority”. The time after the Conquest was the first public demonstration of the power the king held over the land. William essentially took back all of the land and redistributed it to his own vassals or, as they came to be known, barons. The barons then divided up their own sections and granted the areas to their own vassals. A “feudal pyramid” can begin to be seen, in which the classes were very defined, and everyone, in the end, was led by the king.
In addition to these political changes, their were cultural changes, too. The Normans were shocked at their arrival to find such low moral and cultural standards in England. With the invasion of the Normans, England received a new ruling class, culture, and language. French became the language of law, estates, song, verse, chanson, and romance. It was considered the “language of the civilized”, and all of the noblepeople all over Europe knew, in addition to their own language, French. The English architects and artists borrowed French designs, such as Romanesque and Gothic, which are now well-known as the styles of most of the famous landmarks in Europe, such as Westminster Abbey, and Bath.
Prior to the invasion of French culture, England had been a land mostly influenced by its neighbors to the north, what is now known as Scandinavia. The language was in use from the first immigrants in the Fifth Century, until it became common in the Eighth Century. It remained relatively unchanged until 1150, when the linguistic effects of the Norman Conquest began to appear in everyday use and the language shifted to Middle English. Even in Modern English, the correlation between the two languages is apparent.
One of the most significant differences between Old English and Middle English is the amount of borrowing from other languages, which expanded mainly with the Norman Conquest. The Old English speakers hesitated from using foreign words, and generally made up their own equivalent of words rather than borrowing directly. The French, however, kept words and sounds similar to their foreign roots. One example of foreign sounds directly affecting English phonemics is the difference between [v] and [f]. In Old English, these were both similar ways of saying [f], like Modern English’s long and short vowels. The introduction of the French word ver, which sounded like Old English’s fer forced speakers and listeners to make a difference between the two sounds.
Another effect that the Conquest had on the English language was due to the scribes. As Old English quickly lost its status, the French scribes, who didn’t care much about correctly spelled Old English began to write the language phonetically, as they heard it with their French conventions. This change can also be seen in Modern English, such as the shift from Middle English [u] to the French [ou] as in house.
Both the English language and the culture have gone through many evolutions, all as a result of the introduction of new ethnic groups into Britain. From the first invasions of the Angles and Saxons in 450 A.D. through the ongoing influx of immigrants from all over the world, England has been a country influenced by its ever-changing population. The most influential of these developments was the Norman Conquest in the year 1066. The results of the Conquest have shaped the history of England, and are still apparent in today’s English traditions, government, and language. By looking at modern England, we can still see the threads that stemmed from the influence of that event, so many years ago.
History of England