So who were these ‘upstart Normans’ who had conquered a kingdom or two? In the fourth and final part of the background events preceding the rule of the Norman Kings of England we take a quick look at Normandy, homeland to the ‘men of the North’.
• The Normans
Normandy is located in northern France along the English Channel between Picardy in the east and Brittany in the west. Its name is derived from the settlement and conquest of the territory by Vikings during the ninth century. Their harassment of the northern coastline of France led to the French King granting lands to their leader Rollo. The fiefdom of Normandy was created in exchange for his homage and fealty. Eventually these ‘Northmen’ absorbed French culture and language, intermarried, and by the time of the Conquest were indeed Norman French.
The Dukes of Normandy commissioned and inspired epic literature to record and legitimise their rule. Wace, Orderic Vitalis, and Étienne of Rouen were among those who wrote in the service of the Dukes.
Duke William of Normandy was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter named Herleva (Arlette) hence the derogatory name ‘William the Bastard’. When William became king of England following the Battle of Hastings in 1066 Normandy and England were linked by Norman rulers for a century and a half until it to reverted to French rule during the reign of King John.
The Normans introduced into England their system of land tenure based upon military service. The word feudalism is derived from fee, an estate in land. However, they kept the whole system of Saxon of local governance and the counties, sheriffs, and courts survived. In short, Norman and Saxon institutions were blended. The Normans were also great builders, in the round-arched Romanesque style. Stone castles, keeps, cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries flourished. Even the most modest churches were enriched with ornate carvings, stained glass and chevron and beak head ornamentation.
Some of Normandy’s important medieval towns and cities include Rouen, on the Seine River about 70 miles northwest of Paris; Caen, located on the Orne River about 9 miles inland from the English Channel and the capital of Normandy under William the Conqueror; and of course Bayeux, home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry which is an eleventh century embroidery which details the Norman Conquest of England.
• The Gesta Normannorum Ducum:
The Gesta Normannorum Ducum is one of the most important sources for the history of Normandy and England in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It contains the earliest prose account of the Norman Conquest and was written by a succession of authors including William of Jumieges, who wrote for William the Conqueror, and later historians such as Orderic Vitalis d. c.1142 and Robert of Torigni d.1186.
Besides the conquest of England, the Normans expanded into other areas; most significantly the Emirate of Sicily which was conquered by Roger I, the youngest son of Tancred of Hauteville and brother of Robert Guiscard. Norman families and their descendants also carved out a place for themselves in the Crusader States of Asia Minor and the Holy Land.
A description of Roger I is given by the contemporary writer Malaterra:
Roger, the youngest of the brothers, whom youth and filial devotion had here to fore kept at home, now followed his brothers to Apulia … and the Guiscard rejoiced greatly at his coming and received him with the honour which was his due … He was a youth of the greatest beauty, of lofty stature, of graceful shape, most eloquent in speech and cool in counsel. He was far seeing in arranging all his actions, pleasant and merry all with men; strong and brave, and furious in battle. And by these qualities he soon won the favour of all.
William II of Sicily, Roger I’s great-grandson, married Joanna (Joan) of England who was the daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1177.