Thanks to a holiday romance the question of succession to the French and English thrones would become a complicated web for the next 800 years.
When the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, the two lines of succession, Harold King of England and William the Duke of Normandy fought for the English crown. Everybody knows that Harold was killed and William won making Harold the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, but you have to give the chap his due. Poor old Harold had only been King for ten months and in the last three weeks before his death had fought of an invasion from the Norse pretender Harald Hadrada at Stamford Bridge 300 miles North of Hastings. No excuses you understand, I’m just saying.
William I was not called ‘Conqueror’ without good reason. Unlike the Romans who subjugated occupied peoples and the Vikings who assimilated the cultures of occupied lands, William determined to make England an extension of Normandy.
Much of what William introduced in England was not so far removed from what the Franks introduced in Gaul, but what he did do was reinforce his central rule with written laws. All land was turned over to the Crown and was granted or confiscated as a gift or punishment. He introduced a true form of feudalism and a raft of new laws designed to discourage revolt and force loyalty to the Crown and Norman landowners. Land was granted to the Church and a law introduced reinforcing one God and one religion so ensuring the future power and wealth of the Catholic Church.
The biggest changes he made were intended to increase Norman control over wealth and power and excluding the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon elite who had fought for Harold had their land confiscated and settled on Williams Norman followers. Land inheritance was controlled by forcing Norman marriages on all bereaved widows and daughters with a claim to property and land. High offices in the Church and Government were given to Normans, ousting almost all the native Anglo-Saxon holders. This meant that all Bishops and Barons and most Abbots and Sheriffs of the shires were Norman.
On a more positive note, he abolished execution, replacing it with blinding and castration, introduced trial by combat or by ordeal by hot iron and ended the trade in slavery. Well it was the Dark Ages after all.
Feudalism granted landowning Barons the right of jurisdiction and heredity over land granted them and made up of several Manors that effectively began the system of British peerage. For the lower classes it created a class system of slaves, serfs, cottars, villeins and freemen. The lowly of the low, barely above a slave was a cottar, a farm labourer with a smallholding. Though slaves now made up smaller proportion of the population (9% according to the Domesday Book), the majority were reliant on the land and had to make the rent as well as surviving. Being a slave meant you might be beaten, but you were provided for. For some slavery must have seemed a better option than being a free man.
William, who was illiterate, then raised the stakes on class distinction by insisting that legal documents should be written in Latin replacing the Old English Anglo-Saxon and that the Elite speak Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French relieving him of the problem of learning Anglo-Saxon.
Not surprisingly William wasn’t popular, there were enough revolts and rebellions to prompt him to maintain troublesome subjects by building the iconic castles still seen today. The landless elite, troublesome Normans and displaced Anglo-Saxons, along with disgruntled peasants, fled to Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia. King Harold’s family fled to Ireland and around 1070 Anglo-Saxons boarded 235 ships and sailed for the surviving Eastern Roman Empire.
By the time land allocation ended almost all the old English aristocracy had gone and England had 6000 Manors. It’s thought 8000 Norman followers settled in England in 1066 and by the 1160’s, Ailred of Rievaulx was writing that ‘intermarriage was common in all levels of society.’
William had a reputation for being a bit harsh, but he was a man with a finger on the pulse of his new kingdom. Once his changes had been made he commissioned the Domesday Book, a census of land and ownership and livestock. When it was completed in 1086 he knew exactly how much money he was likely to raise, what kind of army he could muster and who he could expect to see in court.