A brief history of the Normans

Normans in battle
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/the-vikings-slavs-fear-fight-clash-2637102/

The Normans were a people who ruled parts of Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries.


They were one of the most successful military dynasties in medieval history and played a major role in shaping the course of European history. 


Before their rise to power, the Normans were originally a people known as the Northmen, or Norsemen.


They were a group of Viking and Germanic pagan tribes from the regions of Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. 


During the 8th century AD, they raided coastal settlements along the west coast of Europe.


Eventually, the Normans settled in the areas they attacked and over time, they adapted to their new environments, and integrated into many of the local populations. 

In France

The Normans first rose to prominence in the late 900s, when they began to raid and settle parts of France.


One of the most famous early Norman leaders was a man called Rollo. He led a group of Northmen in a series of raids on the coasts of France and England. 


In 911, the French king Charles the Simple made a deal with Rollo. In exchange for peace, Rollo would be given control of a large area of northern France, which was renamed 'Normandy', which became their base of operations.


From there, they would launch attacks on England, Italy, and other parts of Europe.


Rollo and his followers settled in Normandy and began to build a new society there.


They quickly assimilated into the local French culture and adopted Christianity. 

Norman expansion

The Normans soon began to expand their territory. During the mid-11th century, they exerted influence over the French region of Brittany.


Then, between 999 and 1139, Norman armies invaded southern Italy. The Normans quickly began to make themselves at home in Italy, and within a few years they had seized control of much of southern Italy.


They captured the city of Palermo in 1071 and made it their capital. In 1077, they also conquered the city of Naples on mainland Italy.  

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Conquest of England

The Norman Duke William I (also known as 'the Conqueror') invaded England in 1066, where he hoped to claim the English throne.


At the time, England was in the midst of a civil war, and William saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. 


He quickly assembled an army and invaded England, defeating the English king Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.


This victory allowed William to claim the English throne, and he was crowned king in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. 


To celebrate his victory at Hastings, William commissioned a famous work of art known as the Bayeux Tapestry.


This tapestry is a 70-meter-long embroidered cloth that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. 

Subduing England

Following his conquest, William set about transforming his new English lands. He brought in many new Norman administrators and nobles.


The Normans also built a large number of castles across England, which were used to control the local population.


These castles became known as 'motte and bailey' castles, because they consisted of a large mound ('motte') with a wooden or stone keep ('bailey') on top. 


The Normans also introduced a new system of law and government, which was based on the 'feudal system'.


Under this system, all land was owned by the king, who granted it to his nobles in exchange for their loyalty and service. 


William ordered a survey of all the land in England, which was compiled into a document called the 'Domesday Book'.


This detailed record of all the land and property in England allowed William to effectively tax and control his new kingdom. 


One of the most notorious events in William's early rule was the event known as 'The Harrowing of the North'.


This was a brutal campaign of violence and destruction during 1069-70 that William ordered against the people of northern England, who had rebelled against him.


Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed during this event.

Castle Gate
© History Skills


The Normans left a lasting legacy on both England and France. They introduced many new customs and institutions to both countries, which have shaped their societies ever since. 


In England, the Norman Conquest brought about a huge change in the language spoken there.


The language spoken by the upper classes soon became French, while the language spoken by the lower classes became 'Middle English'. 


The Normans were known for their skill as warriors and their ruthlessness in battle.


They were also great builders and administrators, and under their rule many new castles and churches were built.


The Normans left a lasting legacy on Europe, and their impact can still be seen in many countries today.

Westminster Abbey
© History Skills

Further reading