Debating the Barbarity of Norman Society (1066)

It can be argued that the Normans were barbaric by examining various accounts of their actions. According to scholars, they invaded foreign lands simply because they needed more land. With that information alone, one could easily assume that they lead a very primitive and barbaric culture. However, when looking further into the issue, the reasons why they needed more land can lead to a less barbaric view of their ways. The Normans were a society in search of wealth. They ventured into foreign lands and were great at taking control over weaker people and there is no doubt that their advanced military spread over a great portion of Europe. Still, despite the fact that they were willing to conquer to achieve better standards of life, they did not do it at the actual expense of life.

Several contrasting sources would claim it to be a very organized culture and all agree that it was very militaristic and mobilized for war. According to William of Jumièges in his “Gesta Normannorum Ducum,” the English King Edward died in 1065 without heir, and the kingdom was left to Duke William of Normandy (who later would become William the Conquerer).[1] However, Harold, “the greatest of all earls in his realm in wealth, honour [sic] and power,” who had sworn fealty to William as the rightful successor, seized England as his own immediately. According to the document, which is very undoubtedly pro-Norman, Harold not only ignored the duke’s requests to abandon his plans, but he turned the English against him.

Harold Godwinson depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Harold Godwinson depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

William, Duke of Normandy. Later 'William the Conquerer.'

William, Duke of Normandy. Later ‘William the Conquerer.’

This document later highlights the strength of the Normans. When the duke observed how quickly Harold grew support from the English, “he had a fleet of up to 3000 ships hastily put together and anchored at Saint-Valéry in Ponthieu, full of vigorous horses and very strong [and armed] men” (115). Sailing from the north of France, once the Normans arrived in the southern part of England, they charged forward towards Hastings. Harold’s army met them there, and thus the ‘Battle of Hastings’ occurred, in which Harold was slain and William took his place as the rightful king of England, becoming known to history as William the Conquerer. William is described as “…a very fortunate war-leader, supported by an excellent council…” (117) and the English accepted him as the rightful king, even if they were unhappy to lose Harold (who had just victoriously returned to London from a successful battle against the Norwegians).

William commanding his troops at Hastings.

William (left, saluting his soldiers) commanding his forces at Hastings.

This document highly glorifies William and the Normans, but even without the exquisite descriptions with fancy words describing how valiant and occasionally how the results were God’s will, it is still unfair to suggest that they were a barbaric people. By this evidence, it can be assured that they were definitely people that held true to rules and regulations. William and Edward had agreed that William would succeed him as king. Based on this text alone, it can be argued that William was mostly furious that Harold disregarded an organized plan and a promise that did not even greatly concern him, and it seems like he was reacting to a large bit of disrespect and treason.

Historians discover the possible site of the Battle of Hastings.

William of Poitiers in his “Deeds of Duke William” explains the very same story. According to van Houts, William was formerly a chaplain of William the Conquerer (118). He based his writings between 1071-1077 on the eyewitness accounts of others since he was not present during the invasion of England in 1066 (118). Here, Harold is depicted as a “…mad Englishman…[who] could not endure to wait the decision of a public election… [and] on the tragic day when that best of all men was buried, while all the people were in mourning, he violated his oath and seized the royal throne…with the connivance of a few wicked men” (118). Duke William is then depicted as a valiant soldier, determined to take what was rightfully his by inheritance.

The wickedness of Harold’s actions, as written by William of Poitiers, agrees with William of Jumièges in that the Normans were insulted by the fact that they were cheated of what was rightfully theirs. Despite any language that William of Poitiers may use to glorify William the Conquerer, the bottom line is that the Norman militaristic response cannot be justified as an act of ‘Barbaric’ nature over their English conquest. It was never intended to be a conquest. It was the result of an Englishman who provoked it to become one, and this act of cheat and betrayal would not be tolerated today any less than it was then.

England, 1066.

England, 1066.

England, 1087.

England, 1087.

Other accounts of the Normans during their period of European conquests suggest that they were not barbaric at all. In fact, they often integrated into the cultures that they dominated. For example, the Tower of London is a fine example of Norman architecture built during the time of William himself, which is still in use today. Countless Norman structures exemplifying their great sense of art in architecture still stand today throughout England and Europe, leaving a lasting impression of their assimilation to the places they conquered. These castles that we still marvel at symbolize that they were there to stay, not there to rule from afar.


Construction for the Tower of London began in 1066 as part of the conquest. It is one of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture that we have today. Photo Credit: Bob Collowan/Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The “Deeds of Count Roger and his brother Duke Robert” by Geoffrey Malaterra (c. 1090) suggests that the invasion of Southern Italy was not a quest for power or the spread of a massive empire, but to make sure that people had enough land (238). It is written that in the province of Normandy in the village of Hauteville, the sons of Tancred (the hereditary ruler) felt that their neighborhood was too small to be divided amongst them and their heirs. To prevent any kind of arguments, they left their homeland to seek fortune through arms elsewhere, and this is why they discovered the Italian province of Apulia (239). This document states that Normans were peace-seekers and used their militaristic skills to eliminate feuds between the princes of Cadua and Salerno once they arrived. According to William of Apulia years later after winning control of the southern part of Italy, in his “Poem on the Deeds of Robert Guiscard,” Norman people returned to their native land where they actually “encourage[d] their relatives to come with them to Italy” (236).

Geoffrey Malaterra stresses that the fertility of the land attracted the Normans. Elisabeth van Houts supports this, stating “…[The] fertility of Campania, the area on the Mediterranean coast around Naples, with its vineyards, fruit, trees, springs, and plains, was an important aspect of the Normans’ wish to settle permanently” (225). It is also mentioned that intermarriage was used as a way of assimilating into the culture, and this was done through the working class as well as the aristocracy. In this instance, the pursuit of wealth and prosperity of the Normans was apparently the main goal of Norman conquests. Van Houts, citing Norman historian Graham Loud, also writes that “…[land] is not mentioned in any of the early sources and is therefore unlikely to have been the Normans’ main motivation” (225). After all, Italy would be much better for agriculture than the colder parts of Northern Europe. Therefore, it is unfair to suggest that the Normans were a vicious, power-hungry people if they conquered a land and then actually settled in it permanently. This adaptation was done over a period of decades and is unlike the barbaric characteristics of Norman society that have been exaggerated over the course of many centuries, and any initial violence caused by the conquest was rapidly superseded by intermarriage and assimilation.

And on top of the need for land, which in fact was not the main motivation for these migrations, one of the original reasons the Normans came to Italy was for religious purposes (224). Religious motivations sent them from their homelands as pilgrims (224). This claim is supported by “Poems on the deeds of Robert Guiscard” by William of Apulia, “Deeds of Count Roger and his brother Duke Robert” by Geoffrey Malterra, and “History of the Normans” by Amatus of Montecassino (235, 238, 241). According to van Houts, pilgrims were originally the force behind the first moves. It was a nonviolent invasion of sorts, or at least more diplomatic than we imagine in modern minds (225). They were cultured and sophisticated. Also according to van Houts’ description of Norman pilgrimages, as a leading expert on the subject, she describes that they integrated with societies south of their homeland and were willing to and did accept Christianity. It could be seen as a way of infiltrating society to maintain their presence (225). Once it became part of their norm after intermarrying with the elite, the Normans began to make their profound presence known with their massive, awe-inspiring cathedrals, which were not limited to just Italy. Many of them are still even used today.

And so, overall, the Normans can be summarized as a society that were sophisticated, educated, highly militarized and willing and open to compromise, and one with a great respect for elders and ancestry (239). If a single invasion truly were ruthless, it would have been for a fair and protective reason. This was a society that was smart and educated and made moves that would ultimately help its people, leaving no one behind. The invasions to Italy best help to summarize this and, when examined carefully, show a society that has been victimized by centuries of the Middle Ages being considered an era of darkness, brutality, torture, and sheer uncivilized chaos.

[1] According to Elisabeth van Houts, Orderic Vitalis updated the document text in 1115 in order to add information that would have been common knowledge during the time of William of Jumièges. Pro-Norman sentiments were distinctly toned down.


One thought on “Debating the Barbarity of Norman Society (1066)

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Hastings and the Birth of the English Language (1066) | ROOTS OF EXCALIBUR

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