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William of Normandy Defeats the Anglo-Saxons

Into the eleventh century, the king of Wessex was called "King of the English." Beginning in 1042 that king was Edward "the Confessor." He was the son of Emma of Normandy, giving him blood ties with the Nor'mans (Northmen), former Vikings from across the English Channel in Normandy.

England was enjoying prosperity. It was covered by as much farmland as it would have in the early years of the 20th century, and its population was as large – the result of good nutrition and a lot of exercise. But England's government was poorly organized, and political backwardness contributed to military weakness.

In January 1066, King Edward died. He was succeeded by the Earl of Wessex: Harold Godwinson, son of a powerful nobleman. This bothered a duke named William across the English Channel in Normandy. William had been King Edward's cousin, and Edward had promised to make him his heir. William believed that this gave him the right to rule in England.

Norman aristocrats were having more surviving sons than they had land to divide among them, and they would try to solve their problem in a traditional way: by conquest.  William planned an invasion of England.

On October 13, 1066, with 5,000 Norman knights, William landed in England, near Hastings, on the shore of the English Channel, to press his claim to the throne of England. Troops under King Harold arrived exhausted, having just fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, against an invasion and challenge by Norwegians and King Harold's brother Tostig Godwinson. At Hastings, William's army defeated Harold's army, and King Harold was killed by an arrow, leaving William as the most powerful force in England.

The Anglo-Saxons had not been well organized as a whole for defense, and William defeated the various revolts against what became known as the Norman Conquest. William of Normandy became King William I of England – while Scotland, Ireland and North Wales remained independent of English kings for generations to come.

The Normans were amazed by the wealth of England, William describing England as more wealthy than Gaul. William found local government administration to his liking, and he maintained the Anglo-Saxon judicial system. He also found serfdom – peasants working the lord's land and paying dues to the lord for use of his land. And William found slavery rampant. He allowed domestic slavery to continue about nine percent of England's population remaining in slavery, but he banned the sale of slaves for shipment overseas.

What William had no interest in was Anglo-Saxon art, which he and his fellow Normans treated with contempt and much of which they destroyed.

William introduced England to an exchange of land for military service. He divided England's lands into 180 parcels, each of which was put under the supervision of an overlord who, in turn, rented out lands to Norman warrior-barons. England's Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was replaced by these Norman barons. The now deposed Anglo-Saxon nobles who had not died at Hastings were turned into serfs. Clergy from Gaul replaced Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots.

The Normans erected castles around England as defensive power bases from which to extend control over the English. French words became a part of the English language, and Anglo-Saxon became a peasant dialect.

Without the mechanisms of a modern state, William spent much of his time moving around his realm for show and communications, acting as a court of appeals and demonstrating a greater authority than that held by the local lord.

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.