Norman conquest of 1066: 950th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 11:35 11 November 2016 | UPDATED: 13:09 15 November 2016

King Harold Day in Waltham Abbey marks the burial of the last Anglo-Saxon king in the town after his death at Hastings

King Harold Day in Waltham Abbey marks the burial of the last Anglo-Saxon king in the town after his death at Hastings


On the 950th anniversary of the Norman conquest, Martin Elvery sets out to discover what the shift in ruling power meant for Hertfordshire

The ruined walls of Berkhamsted Castle. A timber motte-and-bailey castle on the site was the first to be built after the Norman invasion to protect the northern route into LondonThe ruined walls of Berkhamsted Castle. A timber motte-and-bailey castle on the site was the first to be built after the Norman invasion to protect the northern route into London

The date rings out, sparking memories of school history lessons and evoking scenes of horses, swords, cries and waves of destruction bearing down on the English. Even those of us who spent much of our history lessons with our heads on our desks know that 1066 marks the date of the Battle of Hastings; a clash that saw an army of soldiers led by William of Normandy cross the channel from northern France and topple the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson – who had just repelled an attack from the Danes at Stamford Bridge – and take control of the country.

Some scholars have sought to show the conquest led to brutal, immediate and seismic changes, while others have focussed on the continuity. The fact is it depended on who you were, what social class you were part of, and where you lived.

For your average Saxon farmer, eking out a tough living from the land, life became even tougher. Under the Norman feudal system of land control, taxes were higher, a greater portion of farming produce was owed to the landlord and many peasant farmers were reduced to little more than slaves. Worse still, the king owned everything and could take it away at any time.

In bigger settlements like Hertford and Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Saxon fortified towns, known as burghs, were remodelled and dominated by Norman castles, designed to control and manage the countryside for miles around and ensure taxes were collected.

Ceiling of St Albans Cathedral tower. The tower was the vision of Norman abbot Paul of CaenCeiling of St Albans Cathedral tower. The tower was the vision of Norman abbot Paul of Caen

If you were a Saxon lord (thegn) or churchman, the change would have hit even harder. William sought to reward his nobles and friends for their support in the invasion with gifts of lands and titles. The old Saxon lords were bumped off, bought off or simply thrown off their lands, as were many of the country’s bishops, archbishops and other leading churchmen.

New Norman lords and bishops held the real power, and not one of them was of English descent. As historian Robert Bartlett argues, it was ‘the swiftest and most thorough replacement of one ruling class by another in English history’.

Bowing to William at Berkhamsted

The unassuming Hertfordshire town of Berkhamsted was the backdrop to one of the critical events of the Norman conquest. Located on a strategic route between London and the Midlands, it was a key stop on William’s march north after his invasion on the south coast.

In early December 1066, just two months after the Battle of Hastings, it was the place where William received the formal surrender of the Anglo-Saxon bishops and lords – including the ‘chief men of London’. It allowed William to make an uncontested march into the capital, where he was crowned king at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.

Before the conquest, London was the centre of a vast estate belonging to the Saxon lord Edeva the Fair. William gave the estate to the Bishop of London and built the White Tower, or Tower of London, to control it.

At Berkhamsted, William’s half-brother, Robert of Mortain, built a timber castle on the motte-and-bailey model in about 1070. It was one of the most important early Norman castles, controlling the northern approach to the capital.

Waltham’s royal claim

Just over the border from Herts is Waltham Abbey in Essex. Some sources say that Harold Godwinson was cured of an illness after visiting the settlement on pilgrimage and in gratitude rebuilt the abbey. After the king was killed at the Battle of Hastings – shot by an arrow through the eye – legend has it that his wife took his mutilated body to Waltham, where it was buried near the high altar.

Today, King Harold Day in the town celebrates the burial here of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king. The supposed location of his burial is marked by a stone slab in the churchyard.

Heart of the county

Although only its 15th-century gatehouse and sections of wall survive today, Hertford Castle was another building created by the Normans shortly after the invasion.

The site was first fortified by the Saxon lord Edward the Elder around 911. As at Berkhamsted, the Normans replaced this with a new form of defence, a wooden and turf motte-and-bailey castle, shortly after Hastings. William granted it to his follower Peter de Valoignes, who became sheriff of Hertfordshire and Essex. As with many Saxon settlements, the Normans changed the emphasis from a fortification that protected its people to a fortified castle that was used as a means of control. As Tom Williamson in his The Origins of Hertfordshire states, ‘The Norman conquest had an almost immediate impact on Hertfordshire.’

Changing churches

While castles were a symbol of power and wealth in the years following the invasion, the Normans later focused on another great symbol. Williamson writes, ‘More ubiquitous were the churches raised by Norman landowners within a generation or two of the conquest.’

Normans rebuilt or extended many English churches and were the first to build the towering cathedrals that dominate our landscape today.

Tradition claims that a monastery was founded at St Albans in 793 by King Offa of Mercia. We know little of this early building other than the monks and nuns there followed the rule of St Benedict. The first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen, was appointed in 1077 and set about rebuilding the abbey in the elegant yet simple Norman (or Romanesque) style, starting with the great tower. Stone for the building was used from the ruins of the Roman town of Verulamium.

What were fairly modest structures in Saxon times were often given mighty new towers, steeples, bells, cloisters and naves. St Mary’s Church in Hitchin, the largest parish church in Hertfordshire, owes much of its prominence to the Normans. Although today’s building was constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries, it stands on the site of two earlier churches and its tower dates from the Norman period.

The Church of St Leonard in Bengeo dates from the Norman period, at about 1120, and is the oldest building in the Hertford area.

St Mary’s in Little Hormead has ancient wooden beams overhead and an intricately-carved font and a bell tower. It has a lovely simple Norman arch separating the nave and chancel.

The Church of St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury in Knebworth stood originally at the heart of the medieval village. It is recorded in the Domesday Book, where it is listed among the lands of Eudo Dapifer, son of Hubert de Rye. When Knebworth Park was created, most probably in the late 13th century, the earlier settlement was relocated about half a kilometre to the south, leaving only the church and some earthworks as evidence of the medieval village.

Domesday – Apocalypse Now?

Other than its architecture, the best record of the impact of Norman control in Hertfordshire comes from the Domesday Book of 1086, William’s tax audit of every town, village and farm in the land.

Domesday records Hertfordshire had nine key areas of land, or ‘hundreds’ – Tring and Danais, Braughing, Broadwater, Cashio, Edwinstree, Hertford, Hitchin and Odsey.

A hundred was an Anglo-Saxon land division, in theory made up of 100 hides, with a hide totalling some 120 acres.

The Domesday entries are a clear record of the shift in power as traditional Saxon hundreds and manors were divided up and given to new Norman landowners. New names such as serf, villein or cottager appeared and were allocated to different social classes under the strict feudal system of the Normans.

The job of the average farmer remained the same, but everyone knew who was master and what was owed to him.

Medieval recession

In the years that followed the conquest, much Hertfordshire land declined dramatically in value. Areas such as Graveley declined by 50 per cent, Datchworth by 47 per cent and Walkern by 38 per cent. The whole process of invasion and take-over and the introduction of a harsh taxation system seems to have had a devastating impact on farming productivity.

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