Recently in my current and extensive work towards my book writing I decided to change the pace a bit and take a small, short break from the Celtic Civilisation. In doing so I decided to read about the Normans, the Normans are labelled as the the conquerors of the vikings, at least that is the case in Britain. I have studied them as part of core education (which was a while ago now), particularly the Battle of Hastings and the Bayeux Tapestry and then only ever so slightly more after Secondary School (High School), but in my deeper more engaged studies I did note the many similarities between the Normans and Vikings. A failing of my own and no other persons, I decided to look further into the similarities and discovered more than I had expected, not just the likeness of the two peoples but also what the Normans had brought to Britain and so I thought I would like to write something on the Normans.
After 1066 and only a little before, is where we start learning about the Normans, as if they appeared and conquered out of nowhere. The origins are barely touched on. So where did the Normans originate?
The Normans were originally Vikings from Scandinavia that had settled in France around the eighth century, during which they were true to their raiding and pillaging nature. The Vikings were master seafarers and would pillage coastline settlements and monasteries as they were rich in gold, food and in the case of settlements, women. The Vikings were the scariest thing to roam the coasts for any country, of course the Vikings would often create small settlements of their own to help with the roaming and raiding, the need was largely for rest and re-invigoration before their next excursions. These settlements were usually small and would only have space for the raiding parties and their families and was more like a temporary waypoint than a home, but they did trade at times and grow crop to survive, whilst they recuperate.
The Vikings were tribal peoples, they would usually move in small forces, though this was the case, it did not mean that there were no larger communities or settlements made up of vikings and unlike many other tribal peoples the vikings did not constantly war with each other. In fact when larger forces fought together, they were largely made up of a cluster of tribes each with their own Chieftains leading them in battle. This is one of the facets that helped establish the Viking period.
The Viking period begins around the eighth century, this is the time in which Vikings became an expanding Civilisation, they would become the feared force of all other civilisations at this time. The Vikings expansion was simply part of their raiding culture, a culture that was fuelled by their religious beliefs. At this time many of the greater civilisations were fighting to keep their kingdoms from falling apart, against uprising and ambitious men of power from within; or defending them from encroaching external threats and indeed some even had both. This environment was perfectly suited for Viking excursions, many of the larger civilisations could not respond quick enough or with enough force to be a threat.
The Viking scourge left many rulers unprepared, unlike other tribal peoples these vikings would work very well together and were masters of swarm attacks and able to perform more tactical attacks such as, hit and run, formations and they also had extremely high battle prowess. The soldiers called Berserkers were a major obstacle for all forces, these Berserkers were not only a much higher level of fighting prowess than the average soldier they also had (or so believed) been granted divine strength as many would fight in a trance-like state and would be without chainmail. Though the Berserkers strengths are many their major strength was that of a leader, these warriors would usually lead the attacks and many of their troops were inspired by them, leading them to fight as hard and as bloody as they could.
The effectiveness of the Vikings is shown in their conquering of land in Italy in 1030, vikings had settled in Southern Italy and had started establishing a kingdom, this was part of the slow process of becoming ‘less’ viking and more ‘Norman’. The love of raiding never dissipated and raids still continued. The French king, ‘Charles the Simple’ was one of the few rulers who had any forethought on how to deal with the Vikings. Charles had given land in the North of France to a Viking Chieftain named Rollo, this was the start of those who would become known as the Normans.
He had given the Vikings the land in hopes to appease them and their raiding, of at least, French territories. The land was soon renamed Northmannia (Normandy), by the Chieftain and over the next 2 century’s the Vikings had intermarried with local French people and slowly became more and more Christianised eventually becoming different in many ways from their viking brethren, this is when the vikings of Northmannia slowly became known as Normans. As Normans the vikings established themselves and proved to be well versed in governance and over the years perfected their type of rule and established their own culture, architecture and aristocracy.
By the time of 1066 before William, the Duke of Normandy had travelled across the sea to reclaim and land he believed to be rightly his, the Normans had became a civilisation of their own making. Norman culture was founded in the well known feudal system as we know it, the process in which, decorated Soldiers and men of status could rule their own lands/holds/fiefs by the will of the king, this was much more prominent in Britain solely due to their unique, or at least independent culture created from varying past influences.
By 1066 the Normans had already established a Kingdom in Sicily, though many of their core values and language had changed since their viking origins, their warrior ethos on the other hand had not. The Normans were still incredible warriors and a force that was the fuel of the Norman conquests. There are many stories about knights and chivalry and the Normans were the ones to establish this romantic but powerful ethos. The Normans would become a huge impacting force on medieval Europe.
Many of the knightly stories portray a knight as a holy warrior, deep in piety and as an unparalleled martial force. The fame of these knights reached far and wide and spread into the Crusader states. The established hierarchy was that of a lord and his retainers, though the retainers had their lands granted to them by their lord in which they had almost autonomous control of, they, of course still paid tribute to their lord but their military and peasantry were theirs to control, manage and maintain, even the coinage in these lands was controlled by whoever was the lord of that land. Though fairly autonomous these lords were still subject to their Duke and if the Duke requested an army to war with, the lords of the lands would be expected to provide these said armies. Many knights, worked their way up from squire to knight, a squire would do various things for their Knight lord, this ranged from polishing armour and weapons, preparing meals, caring for the knights horse and more, in exchange the knight would train the squire in the knightly ways, clothe them and in some cases teach them literature and writing, if not already versed in it. Some squires would go on to inherit the Knights title and land. These things would create a fierce loyalty from the squire.
Most squires were of some level of status and would normally be pages but it was not unheard of for a knight to find potential squires elsewhere, soldiers or rarely peasants who showed potential. Most squires were teenage boys that would essentially be a knight in training under the tutelage of a knight, their jobs varied but every job they did was thought of as simple but important tasks. Through all their loyalty, training and work the knight would have a ‘dubbing’ for his squire, the squire would also need to prove himself in battle before he could go through his ‘dubbing’ to become an officially titled knight. Of course over time the ‘squire’ became a rank of its own and evolved to mean other things, such as a title for lords of manors and eventually members of parliament.
The Normans were excellent warriors and also great governors but they had incredible architectural abilities as well, some of Britains most incredible buildings were built in the Norman style. The term Romanesque architecture is the term used to describe Norman styles of architecture. The Normans were responsible for numerous cathedrals, forts and monasteries in their territories and were also the first to build a stone keep in Britain, what remains of Colchester castle is the largest as well as the first stone keep in Britain built by the Normans. As military constructors the Normans were not only the first to build them in stone, they were also the first to build motted castles. Motted castles were incredibly tough to besiege and to take, the idea of a water defence was innovative and effective, heavy armour was the Middle Ages staple and it was impossible to swim the motte and even if it was possible the soldiers and knights would be very easily killed by the archers on the castle walls.
Besieging castles that had mottes was a timely and costly endeavour as it took a large amount of supplies and preparation to claim advantage or victory in such battles, during the long sieges it was possible that enemy reinforcements could arrive, disease and sickness could spread amongst the pitched army very easily and the longer a siege was drawn out the more the morale of troops would fall. Warfare in general is not a pleasant experience and in the Middle Ages this was even more the case, pitched tents on muddy sometimes boggy land, cold weather, many soldiers close together in heavy unbreathable armour, these conditions were a standard in warfare and besieging a castle was an even longer experience. Militarily the Norman keeps and forts were incredible and scary to go up against, the experiences would leave any person in awe of the great Norman architecture, though militarily a fearful thing when it came to the cathedrals and monasteries the impression was. No less great.
The Norman cathedrals and monasteries were just as impressionable, unlike the fear inducing forts and keeps, the monasteries evoked awe and enlightenment many of the religious buildings had very large arches with intrinsic and precisely rounded and patterns which were especially massive in proportion to other places around the world. One of the most unique and intrinsic designs was saved for church and monastery doorways, many would have multilayered arches with differing depths, these would usually have a pattern that looked like a zig zag pattern (chevron patterns) or mouldings. A great example of this style can be found on the guilting power in Gloucestershire. To this day many monasteries and churches have the same style. The Normans architects were so skilled that when a fire had damaged the Canterbury cathedral Norman masons were called to repair it.
Though the Norman era was a short lived period, the Normans have left their mark on our world and in particular Britain, many of the British iconic buildings were left by the Norman’s, Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Oxford castle and Winchester Cathedral to name but a few. The Norman knights have been a muse for many writers and filmmakers of the past and present. Norman influence has been and still is far-reaching and inspirational, the journey from Norse Vikings to some of the most devout Christians is fascinating and I for one am grateful for my break from my Celtic writing to research and enjoy this incredible era.