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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Unit 4

Norman Conquest

Learning Outcomes

After completing this unit, the learner will be able to:

  •  learn about another period of British history dominated by the Norman Conquests.
  • identify the beginning of new rule by Nordic tribes under William the Conqueror through the Battle of Hastings.
  • differentiate the changes brought forth by the new regime, especially in the field of feudalism.
  • examine the new rulers’ strategies for maintaining the new social set based on the then-existing feudal structure.


The Normans (“Northmen”) were originally pagan barbarian pirates from Denmark, Norway and Iceland. They engaged in destructive plunder on European coastal settlements in the 8th century AD. During the 9th century their raids and attacks in the northern parts of France increased rapidly. They managed to conquer much of northern France and settled down there. They adopted French language, customs and religion. These conquerors came to be known as Normans, and the region they settled came to be known as Normandy.
The Duke of Normandy, William had a legitimate claim to the English throne as the distant cousin of Edward the Confessor, King of England. When Edward died without an heir in January 1066, William immediately declared himself as the heir to the English throne. William claimed that Edward had chosen him as his successor.
But Harold, Earl of Wessex opposed William’s claim and seized the throne. This provoked William and he equipped a big army to conquer Harold and seize the throne of England.
The Battle of Hastings was a decisive war fought between William and Harold to determine who would be the real heir to the English throne. William assembled a force of 4,000-7000 knights and foot soldiers to handle Harold. William had also secured support for his invasion from both the Norman aristocracy and the Papacy. On 1066, September 27, William’s army crossed the English Channel and moved directly to Hastings where Harold’s army was camped. Harold’s army of highly trained infantry stood firm in the face of William’s mounted assault. William’s army killed many English soldiers and as the battle continued, the English soldiers were gradually exhausted. On 14th October Harold was killed in the battlefield and the
remaining English soldiers scattered and fled. After this great victory William was crowned as King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. This final victory at Hastings gave him the title William the Conqueror.

Battle of Hastings, Norman, Feudalism, Anglo-Saxon system, Oath of Salisury, Doomsday Book

The Norman Conquest had profound political, administrative and social effects on the British Isles. In political terms, William’s victory destroyed England’s link with Scandinavia and brought the country into close contact with the Continent, especially France. Another major change was the introduction of land tenure and military service. William reorganised the upper ranks of English society by dividing the region among about 180 Norman tenants-in-chief and innumerable intermediate tenants. This caused almost a total replacement of the English aristocracy with Norman ones.
1.4.1 Government
Anglo-Saxon England had developed a highly organised central and local government and an effective judicial system. All these were retained and used by William. The old administrative divisions such as Hundreds and Shires were retained with minor changes. In them (Hundreds and Shires) and in King’s court, the Common law of England continued to be administered.

Common law of England is the legal system of England which is applicable to the whole land, not limited to any locality. It arose from the customs and traditions which were approved by royal judges. It is mainly unwritten.

A consequence of William’s land policies was the development of feudalism. Feudal practices prevailed in the Anglo-Saxon period. But William made drastic changes in it to suit his needs. William let the Anglo-Saxon Earls of Mercia and Northumbria keep their lands because they had not fought against William at Hastings. The only condition was that they accepted William’s authority as king and as their feudal lord. William transferred land ownership from the Anglo-Saxon nobles who hadn’t supported him to the Normans. These were men he could trust and rely on. Norman feudalism was different from the Anglo- Saxon system in one important way- King William was the owner of all the land. The system of giving land in exchange for duties had existed before the Norman Conquest but William confiscated land from Anglo Saxons, which created a whole new power structure. Norman feudalism was based on royal strength. Feudalism was based on contracts made among nobles. In feudal society, the ownership of land was vested in the king. King was theoretically placed at the apex of an imaginary pyramid. Immediately below him were his vassals, a hierarchy of nobles, who held fiefs, a piece of land, directly from the king and were called tenants-in-chief. The Normans split up the English land and retained and maintained their power by building castles as power bases to control the English population.
Feudalism became a way of life in medieval England and remained so for many centuries. William needed a way of controlling England so that the people remained loyal to him. William considered all the land in England his own personal property, gave out fiefs to nobles who in return had to give military service when required. William divided up England into very large plots of land. These were given to those noblemen who had fought bravely for him in battles, especially at Hastings. The land was not simply given to these nobles. They had to swear an ‘oath of loyalty’ to William. Then they had to collect taxes in their area for him and they had to provide the king with soldiers if they were told to do so. The men who got these pieces of land (fief) were called barons, earls and dukes. Within their own area, they were the most important persons. In the terms of the feudal system, these men (barons, earls, dukes) were called tenants in-chief. The tenants in-chiefs further divided up their land and these were given to trusted Norman Knights. Each knight was given a segment of land to govern. The Knights had to swear an oath to baron, duke, or earl, collect taxes and provide soldiers from their land when they were needed. These lords worked to maintain law and order in their area.
The lords had to do their jobs well as unsuccessful ones could be removed from their position. At the bottom of the ladder were the conquered English (serfs) who had to do what they were told or pay the price for their disobedience. They were treated harshly and there was always the constant threat of Norman soldiers being used against the English people wherever they lived.
1.4.2 Oath of Salisbury (1086)
The Oath of Salisbury refers to an event of 1086 AD, when William I summoned his tenants-in- Chiefs and land-owning men to Old Sarum (Salisbury) where they swore allegiance to him. It was an important measure of William to assert his power over the English and Norman aristocracy. The prime aim of this oath was to affirm the power and prestige of the sovereign. Through this oath William made “all the landowning men of property all over England swear fealty to him”. The oath was demanded at a time of crisis when William faced revolt and invasion.
Scholars always connect this event in relation to English feudalism. Some regard this “striking event” as the formal introduction of feudalism in England. But W. Stubbs, in his book Constitutional History of England denied this argument and proved that the Salisbury oath was an act of ‘homage’ by all nobles and aristocrats. (Homage in feudalism denotes the complete surrender and submission of a vassal before his lord). Through this oath of allegiance, all nobles and landowners were asked to pledge homage before William. Thus Stubbs believed that the event was a deliberate measure by William to decrease the power of landlords. So the oath by landlords was clearly an anti-feudal measure of William to promote the centralization of administration.
1.4.3 Domesday Book (Doomsday Book)
Domesday Book is a manuscript record of the “Great Survey” of much of England completed in 1086 prepared as per the orders of William the Conqueror. It was written by William of Calais, a French lawyer. The purpose of William to conduct such a huge census was to strengthen his hold on the feudal lords and their subordinates. William wanted to raise taxes to pay for his army and to meet the administrative expenses. He therefore conducted a survey to assess the wealth and assets of his subjects throughout the land. This survey also helped to assess the economic condition of his subjects. The result was the Domesday Book which contains records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees. The book served two purposes –fiscal and political. Politically it helped William I to make himself supreme. At the same time the survey helped the king to ascertain the tax that was due to him from every land holder in his realm. Assessment of the tax of his kingdom was based on the finds of the surveyors. The information in the survey was collected by “Royal Commissioners” who were sent out around England. These Royal Commissioners carried with them a set of questions and put them to a jury of representatives from each ‘county’. This fascinating document gives a valuable insight into land use at the time, the life of local landowners, and even disputes between neighbours.
The Domesday Book consists of two volumes. Volume I, known as “Great Domesday”, contains the final summarised record of all ‘counties’ surveyed except Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Volume I gives details about a roll of holders of land in each county, list of feudal manors with names of their holders from 1066 until 1086, ploughing capacity of the land, number of agricultural workers, their mills, fishponds and other amenities, and finally their value in pounds. In short “there was no single ‘hide’ nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out in Domesday Book.”
Volume II is known as “Little Domesday”, contains a detailed survey of the counties of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. For most English villages and towns Domesday is the starting point of their history. For historians of Anglo-Norman England, the survey is of immeasurable importance. It acquired the name Domesday Book because of the huge amount of information that was contained in it and compared to the “Last Judgement”, or “Doomsday”, described in the Bible. Currently it is kept in a specially made chest at London’s Public Record Office, Kew, London.


  • William’s victory severed England’s ties to Scandinavia and brought it into close contact with the Continent, particularly France.
  • William retained the highly organised central and local governments and an effective judicial system developed by Anglo-Saxon England.
  • William divided up England into very large plots of land.
  • The land was then granted to those noblemen after they swore a “oath of loyalty” to William.
  • The men who got these pieces of land (fief) were called barons, earls and dukes.
  • In the terms of the feudal system, these men (barons, earls, dukes) were called tenants in-chief.
  • Tenants-in-chief further divided their land, which was given to trusted Nor- man Knights.
  • Each knight was assigned a plot of land to govern. The Knights were re- quired to swear an oath to a baron, duke, or earl.
  • When the Tenants in Chief were needed, the knights would collect taxes and provide soldiers from their land.
  • The Oath of Salisbury is regarded as William’s anti-feudal measure to pro- mote administration centralisation.
  • Domesday Book is a manuscript record of the “Great Survey” of much of England completed in 1086 prepared as per the orders of William the Con- queror.
  • Domesday Book Politically helped William I to make himself supreme. f The Domesday Book aided the king in ascertaining the tax.

Objective Type Questions

1. Who were Normans or ‘Northmen’?
2. Who became the Duke of Normandy after the death of Edward, the Confessor? 3. Who fought against each other in the Battle of Hastings?
4. Who ascended the throne of England after the Battle of Hastings?
5. What was one of the major results of William’s land policies?
6. What was one of the major features of “Norman feudalism”?
7. What is the significance of the ‘Oath of Salisbury’?
8. Who claimed that the Salisbury oath was an act of ‘homage’ by all nobles and aristocrats?
9. What is the Domesday Book?
10. What was the purpose of William conducting a huge census on the economic condition of his subjects?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. Pagan barbarian pirates from Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, who en- gaged in destructive plunders on European coastal settlements in the 8th century CE
2. William, the Conqueror
3. William and Harold
4. William, the Conqueror
5. The development of feudalism
6. King William owned all the land.
7. Tenants-in-chief and land-owning men swore allegiance to William at Old Sarum (Salisbury)
8. W. Stubbs
9. A manuscript record of the “Great Survey” of England, written as per the order of William the Conqueror by William of Calais
10. To strengthen William’s hold on the feudal lords and their subordinates by raising taxes to pay for his army and to meet the administrative expenses.


1. Briefly describe the political, administrative and social changes happened in the British Isles with the Norman Conquest
2. What are the changes brought forth by the new regime, especially in the field of feudalism by using the Tenants-in chief?
3. Examine the new ruler’s strategies for maintaining the new social set based on the then-existing feudal structure.

Suggested Readings

1. Carter EH, RAF and Mears A History of England, Stacey International, 2012. 2. Trevelyan, G. M. A Social History of England, Vol.1, Books Way, 2014.
3. Hollister, Warren. The Impact of Norman Conquest, Wiley, 1969.
4. Brown, Allan. Origins of English Feudalism, Routledge, 2020.


1. Trevelyan, G.M. English Social History, Books Way, 2014.
2. E.H. Carter, Mears,, A History of Britain, Stacey International, 2012.
3. Jenkins, Simon, A Short History of England, Profile Books, 2018.
4. Morgan, Kenneth O (ED). The Oxford History of Britain, OUP, 2010.
5. Churchill, Winston. A History of English-Speaking Peoples, Bloomsbury, 2015. 6. Bucholz, Robert and Newton. Early Modern England 1485-1714, Wiley–Black-well, 2003.