Thursday 26 July 2012

Strormin' Normans

Last year the communities of northern France celebrated eleven hundred years of history with a Happy Birthday Normandie bash  Those who joined in were urged to "feel free to awaken your sleeping Viking spirit."  The reference here is to the grant of land around Rouen and the mouth of the Seine by King Charles the Simple to Rollo the Ganger and his seafaring raiders, generally dated to the year 911.  That sort of thing awakens my sleeping Viking spirit, so I'm rather sorry I did not take to my long ship and sail across the Channel.  Now I shall have to wait until 2111!

The Vikings had been raiding the area for some years before Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy.  But they had long since come as settlers, not just pirates.  Charles' grant was really no more that a recognition of political reality, an act of territorial appeasement that was to be the germ of greatness.  It also offered a way of protecting his northern flank from further incursions. 

The settlers, always a minority among the Frankish locals, quickly absorbed the cultural, religious and political mores of their new home, becoming just as French as the French; but they always remained something more, something unique.  Adventures of one season became the new Spartans of the next, a warrior cast of seafaring raiders that became arguably the most effective state builders of the whole of the early middle ages.

In writing about my own Norman ancestry (Norman and Proud, 21 August 2010), I made the following points;

Now settled, the Normans steadily went native, speaking a variety of French and acquiring a taste for wine. But they always remained of singular appearance, not just clean shaven but closely cropped, with heads shaved up the back. As Vikings they were infantrymen but as Normans they became knights, acquiring superb skills in horsemanship.

It seems to me that the other important thing to remember about the Normans is that they never quite lost their ancestral habits. Freebooters they were, freebooters they remained. They became Christian, the builders of some of the greatest religious foundations in both France and England, though they never quite lost their pagan ruthlessness. And they were ambitious; my how they were ambitious, with a hunger for wealth, land and power. They were history’s greatest pirates, opportunists and adventurers.

In a sense the Normans were a nation of younger sons, if can put it like that.  As younger sons they were obliged to make their own destiny, and they did, fanning out across Europe; fanning north to England, fanning south to Italy, where Norman kingdoms were established in Napes and Sicily, fanning to the gates of Byzantium and beyond.  There's was no country for old men.

The most remarkable thing from the perspective of these islands is that in just over a hundred years, nothing at all in the great time sweep of history, the nascent Norman state had risen so far as to be able to overthrow the Saxon monarchy of England, a task that had never quite been achieved by their Viking predecessors. 

In October 1066 William came, he saw and he conquered.  I do not believe the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest to be one of the most significant events in our history.  It was the most significant, nonpareil. It was to change England forever; it was to change both the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons into something wholly different.  It was the end of England's freedom and the beginning of her greatness.

Before 1066 England had been peripheral to the mainstream of European history.  The country really belonged to the Scandinavian fringe, an appendage at the beginning of the century of Canute's Danish empire.  The Conquest changed all of that.  Now England was locked into the new feudalism and into the mainstream of Christian civilization. The country had emerged for good from a Saxon and Viking twilight to become a player in the centuries to come in the great game of European politics.

In time the Normans became English the English became Normans.  The buccaneering spirit that carried the Normans across Europe was to carry the English across the world.  The Norman Conquest had created a new language, a new culture and a new people; it created a new England. That, it seems to me, is no small achievement.  It is why I have no hesitation in declaring that I am Anglo-Saxon, I am Nordic, I am Norman and, what is greater, I am English.  Is there any prouder boast?  


  1. Replies
    1. A mixture, Anthony, though the Normans were all Scandinavian, mostly from what is now Norway and Denmark.

  2. 'Is there any prouder boast?'

    None whatsoever Ana. Great article.

  3. Arggh! This article makes we want to go find out if there is any anglo-saxon, nordic blood in me. cause that would be baddass.

    Wonderful article, Anastasia, like always ;-p

    "It was the end of England's freedom and the beginning of her greatness."

    That is an interesting way to put it. I too am fascinated by past peoples that overcame and tamed the lands for civilization's propagation. The American journey west, Alexander the great's conquests, William the conqueror, and so on.

    and now, I must go read more into this Viking, nordic history, as it is enticing


    1. Kaja, many thanks. It's a fascinating story, well worth looking into.

  4. a very partisan account. The Norman conquest was the most terrible event in English history. A civilised and relativly democratic people were reduced to abject poverty and their lands and power taken and distributed among pirates.
    Harold, defeated and barbarically dismembered by these savages was a wise, brave and courageous warrior king. The Harrying of the North under William the Bastard was vengeful and barbaric and never forgotten. The fault lines of the worst traits in English character persist to this day as an inheritance from the Norman pirates.

    1. Yes, Diamond, but there is partisan and there is partisan. There is my partisan, which is bad, and there is your partisan, which is good. Conquest is never a gentle process. Here you might consider the experience of the gentle and civilized inhabitants of Roman Britain, faced with the brutal incursions of the Angles, Saxons and Frisians, pirates from across the North Sea. The Conquest reduced a great part of the Anglo-Saxon population of England to serfdom, that’s certainly true, but it did not result in their wholesale displacement.

      Anyway, you are a partisan of the Wake, clearly blind to all that followed in the wake of William; blind to the great cultural, architectural, administrative and linguistic innovations down the centuries. England is a land of Counties, Cathedrals and Castles, all thanks to the Normans and their Angevin successors. It really is time for you to lose your Hastings mentality, to come out from behind that shield wall, and stop dwelling on old, unhappy, far off things and battles long ago. :-)

  5. Ana under Norman law it was a lesser offence to kill a pig than an Englishman.I would like to ask your learned opinion on that matter, me Lady.

    1. Not all good, Richard, not by any means. Injustice is always terrible. Still, it was under the Normans and Angevins that English Common Law began its great forward march.

  6. Centuries of piracy that have come full circle.

  7. English Common Law made its great forward march despite the Normans, not because of them, simply because the Normans were forced to give way to English custom by their inability to maintain their brutal subjugation of England if they were to further expand the territories they held.

    I agree with you Ana that 1066 is the single most significant event in English History, something whose echoes are still sounding today, nearly a thousand years later.

    However I would be more willing to acknowledge Norman achievements if their "British" descendants weren't still trying to oppress England - denying the people of England equal political rights with the rest of the "United" Kingdom, and accusing anybody wanting to celebrate their English culture as being some kind of dangerous fanatic.

    1. WG, I most certainly don't. More; I go out of my way to celebrate English culture. Here I simply flagged up the Norman dimension. I confess that this was written in part as a reaction to all those who see the contribution the Normans made to our history and culture in a wholly negative light. We have come a long way from 1066.

  8. Sorry Ana, I wasn't including you in my comment about the Norman's "British" descendants, I meant "spiritual" heirs rather than actual ones. After all, Simon de Montford was Anglo-Norman and he called the first directly elected Parliament in Mediaeval Europe. He clearly identified with England and the English rather than against.