The History of the Norman Conquest

The Normans

The Duchy of Normandy was nominally held from the French king. Founded by the Viking, Rollo, in 911, the Normans (i.e. northmen) soon adopted French
ways, customs and language, even their methods of fighting from horseback.

The old capital was Rouen but William the Bastard had moved his power-base westwards to Caen. Thanks to an inherited Carolingian tradition, the introduction of feudalism, a thriving economy and large ducal estates, William was a strong ruler, related to many of his leading nobles. The local officials, or vicomtes, assisted in imposing the Duke’s justice, a growing force at this time, and farmed fixed revenues for their estates. William was able to impose direct tax, as well as tolls, feudal dues and profits from justice. He called councils of varying sizes, the largest of which included all his magnates, ecclesiastical and lay. Charters were produced in numbers that compare well with England.

Unlike England, Normandy was a feudal state, that is, one based on land held in return for military service, for which vassals did homage to their lord, both lay and ecclesiastical. Thus the land, lordship and knight service were inextricably bound together. Some families held allodial land, free from ducal control; some held land from several lords, or might enfeof more knights than were necessary for ducal service; William could not impose as complete a rule as he might have wished.

Together with the mounted and fully armed knight went the use of castles by the Duke and his magnates. These residential strongholds, unlike the communal burhs of England, were often of earth and timber construction, but already a few large stone towers, or donjons, had been erected, such as the now vanished ducal example in Rouen. Once in power William strove to ensure that no castles should be erected without his agreement, and that all those held by magnates should be open to him as required.

The Norman church was experiencing the same impetus which had affected the English church the previous century. It welcomed foreigners able to prove their worth and several great monastic houses flourished, notably the abbey of Bec, and produced distinguished churchmen. William would later use the contrast with England as propaganda in citing his cause to Rome. In 1047 William introduced the Truce of God to enforce his peace. However, he made sure that his bishops owed him military service for the lands they held.

Norman towns were encouraged and founded by magnates. Indeed, the duchy was well ahead in the economic expansion of Europe, maintaining trade connections with Scandinavia and with London. The dukes were careful to control the coinage, and the vigorous economy made Normandy a rich part of northern France.