England in Chaos during the Norman Invasion of 1066

Harold Rex Interfectus Est: “King Harold is killed”. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings and the death of Harold. / Wikimedia Commons

The Normans originated as early settlers of northern France. The most valued skill was knowing one’s way around a blade.


The fate of English literature was largely influenced by Frenchmen from the North, invading the rainy, wet piece of land that was England. Without this forced influence, English literature as it is known today might have taken a completely different form. The Norman Invasion was cultivated after the death of King Edward and his 23 year-long reign. King Edward had no successor to the throne. Ruling England was then seen as the goal for three men, and they all headed for King Edward’s crown.

The first man was Harold Godwinson, who was a tremendously powerful man, and conveniently the brother-in-law of King Edward. Many agreed that he was the perfect fit for the throne because of his relations to the King. Before King Edward passed away in his kingdom, he recited, “Into Harold’s hands I commit my Kingdom.” (CITE) Many historians still question whether this statement was truly expressed. The council of royal advisors, the Witan, declared Harold the King, and his coronation was on the same day as King Edward’s burial ceremony.

The second was William, the Duke of Normandy. William claimed that he was the rightful heir, due to his blood relation to Edward. William also mentioned that years prior to his death, Edward had chosen him as the successor. Supposedly, King Edward had swore to the relics of a martyred saint that he would support William as the next heir to the throne. When William found out that Harold had obtained the crown, it was a violation of the sacred oath King Edward had made to him, and violation of King Edward’s wishes. Due to the “violation of a sacred oath,” William gained enough support to prepare for, and invade England. Most importantly, the pope excommunicated Harold, condemning him and his followers to Hell.

The third rival was the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. He had justified his rightfulness to the throne through his nephew Mangus, who had made a deal with the Danish ruler of England, Harthacut. Neither Mangus nor Harthacut had male heirs, and entitled the other as the ruler of their kingdom in case death took either of their lives. When both Mangus and Harthacut died, Harald fittingly claimed to be the heir of Mangus in order to take the crown of King Edward.

Coin of Harald as the sole Norwegian king, “ARALD REX NAR[vegiae]”. Imitation of a type of Edward the Confessor. / Wikimedia Commons

The battles began with Hardrada’s strike on the Northern English coast in September, when heading towards the city of York. Hadrada teamed up with Tostig, King Harold’s brother, to attack and obtain the throne. After the Vikings took the city of York, more severe battles began. King Harold heard of the attacks, and quickly marched his army to surprise Hadrada at Stamford Bridge, outside of York on September 25th. The bridge was lit up with combat. Hadrada fell first, followed by Tostig, leaving their army no choice but to flee to their ships. Harold, content with his success, heard about the landing of William’s army near Hastings. On September 27th, Harold set sail and ended up on the coast near Pevensey and marched his way to Hastings. On October 14th, battle started as William and the Normans set up his attack with archers in the front. This battle continued all day long, until finally the Normans gained the upper hand and took out King Harold and the rest of his army. William was fortunately crowned King on Christmas of 1066 in the Westminster Abbey.

Norman Culture

The Normans originated as early settlers of northern France. Like many cultures at the time, the most valued skill was knowing one’s way around a blade. The Normans valued effectiveness in battle extremely high. A wet blade made for more land. In Norman culture soldiers fought under a lord for land and loot, it was the lords responsibility to distribute the payoff to the warriors. If these soldiers were unsatisfied with their share of the takings he could simply find another lord that offers a better payoff (Ibeji, 2011). They had a simple social hierarchy that consisted of lords at the top, followed by soldiers, then indentured servant farmers, and finally slaves (Ibeji, 2011).

Weapons and Armor

Rushing into battle unarmed and naked does not seem like a smart idea. During the Norman conquest a soldier’s sword and armor could be his best friend. The invading Norman horsemen typically dawned a hauberk, a long piece of upper wear made of chain mail (“Norman Weapons, Arms and Armor”, 2006). Since this armor was notoriously heavy soldiers often did not wear it until their enemy was in their line of sight. The men on the front line were not as lucky, it was rare for infantrymen to have protective armor (“Norman Weapons, Arms and Armor”, 2006). It was common for a soldier to carry a kite shaped shield in their left hand. These shields were typically constructed of wood, covered with leather, and painted colorful. The standard issue weapon for these soldiers consisted of a spear with a leaf-like head posted on an ash shaft. The spears were used by both horsemen and foot soldiers alike (“Norman Weapons, Arms and Armor”, 2006).

The Battle of Hastings

Norman knights and archers at the Battle of Hastings depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. / Wikimedia Commons

On October 14, of 1066, King Harold stood with his 5,000 men against William the Conqueror, their Norman opposition. Harold’s men were tired and worn, and planned to make this a defensive battle. Harold employs a shield wall formation in which his men use their shields to fend off the oncoming Brenton Knights (Ibeji, 2011). With the shield wall working wonders, the Normans begin to retreat down the hill. Seeing this as an opportunity to carve up the Norman invaders, King Harold charges after them. Down the hill, the Normans launch counter-offensive actions lead by William the Conqueror, after he was ejected from his horse. This day in history continues with constant fighting– a clear display of metal-on-metal –while the Normans attempt to break down the English shield wall.

One lucky archer claims a head shot on the leader of the English, King Harold, whom was then hacked and mutilated by Norman warriors. Harold’s body was so mangled it had to be identified by Edith Swan-neck, his mistress (Ibeji 2011). This proved a great military victory for the invading Normans.

Life after the Invasion

Aspects of life in England after the Norman invasion were different in some ways, but also retained many features of Anglo-Saxon life. The government and judicial system of Anglo-Saxon England were very carefully constructed, and for the most part William upheld these systems and the common law of England. However, there were some changes. For example, the Norman trial by combat was introduced alongside the existing Saxon judicial system. Land ownership was also transferred to Normans, instead of the English aristocrats who had previously held the position. Tenants on the land served as fiefs as the Normans brought a feudalist system to England. England’s previously strong ties with Denmark and Norway were cut in favor of a stronger relationship with France and mainland Europe.

There were also overhauls within the Church. William wanted more control over the church, replacing English bishops and abbots with Normans and holding more frequent church councils, which he oversaw. He also outlawed selling church offices and marriages, which had previously been an issue. He built several new monasteries in order to encourage the growth of monastic life.

Language in England also experienced a change. English was replaced by Latin in literature and law, and Latin gradually replaced by Anglo-Norman. It was not until the 13th century that English would make a significant return.

The Bayeux Tapestry: A Historical Overview

Harold meeting Edward shortly before Edward’s death, depicted in scene 25 of the Bayeux Tapestry. / Wikimedia Commons

This embroidered piece of art tells the tale of the Norman Invasion of 1066, and the events that triggered the attack. It is 230 feet long and 20 inches wide, depicting scenes with very fine detail that keeps English history of over one thousand years alive (“The History of Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry, 2000). Historians believe that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo, who was the half-brother of William the Conqueror (“Invasion of England, 1066”, 1997). It was stitched together in woolen yarns on a linen cloth. The Tapestry was designed during a time where most of society was illiterate. Making a visual representation of their history, instead of writing it, was the most logical. However, there are ‘Titles’ of the events written above the scenes in Latin to allow the viewers to distinguish between events (“The History of Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry, 2000).

The Death of King Edward is a section that is divided into three different scenes, and the most bizarre part is that these three scenes are reversed in chronological order (“Invasion of England, 1066”, 1997). Viewers first see the Westiminster Abbey, where King Edward is buried. Second, viewers see the funeral service of King Edward. Thirdly, King Edward’s death is portrayed. Note that in scene three, Edward is alive on the second story of his castle, and dead in the bottom half of his castle. The Latin reads: “Here King Edward addresses his faithful ones.” Harold can be seen kneeling in front of King Edward in the bottom story, as King Edward appoints him as his heir (“Invasion of England, 1066”, 1997).

Once William gets the news that Harold has become the heir of King Edward, he rushes his ships to sea, packed with soldiers, weapons, and horses. Once his fleet had landed on English ground, the Battle begins between the Normans and the Saxons (“Invasion of England, 1066”, 1997).

The Death of King Harold is the last scene of the Bayeux Tapestry. William the Conqueror took over the throne of England following the Norman’s victory (“Invasion of England, 1066”, 1997).

The original Bayeux Tapestry is currently displayed in Normandy, France. The first written record of the Tapestry wasn’t until 1476, when it was displayed at Bayeux, in Normandy, in a cathedral treasury (“The History of Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry, 2000).

The Tapestry Replica on display in the Reading Museum in England.

However, there is a replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, which can be found at the Reading Museum in England. A woman by the name of Elizabeth Wardle, used her embroidery skills and thirty-five other women to duplicate the original Tapestry to display as a reminder of their countries’ history. The replica was a traveling piece that was brought to many cities for citizens of Europe to view. It has since been conserved and placed in the Museum in its own Bayeux Tapestry gallery (“The History of Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry, 2000).


The English Language before 1066

‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ in Old English, accompanied by translated lines of Modern English.

Prior to the Normandy invasion of 1066, Old English was the primary language that was spoken. Old English is derived from Old Norse dialect, and Old Germanic tribe dialect (Durkin, 2013). The Old Germanic tribes were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (Durkin, 2013). Old English was comprised of four different dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish (Durkin, 2013). Old English was spelled out phonetically, as it sounds, and used heavy inflections on verbs, nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. When Old English was in use, it did not borrow words from Latin, or other languages. This language relied heavily on its own vocabulary.

The English Language after 1066

After the Norman Invasion in 1066, the English language changed dramatically. Twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, all of the past Old English aristocracy had been taken out of any positions of power. Robert Bartlett described this as the “swiftest and most thorough replacement of one ruling class by another in English history” (Bartlett, 2010). This change in ruling class would create the conditions possible for Norman French and Old English to eventually mold into Middle English.
When the Norman’s took charge in 1066, they brought with them a completely unknown culture and language. After the Norman’s take over as the ruling class, Old English was discarded by the aristocracy and Latin or Norman French was substituted (Boxwell). French became the language used by merchants, the courts, and was spoken by the ruling class. Latin was used by the clergy (Morris). The English language was only in use by the common folks. By removing Old English from the ruling classes, the doors for changing the primary language had been opened. Simplification happened as the common people tried to communicate with those whose first language was not English.

As English was in the process of changing, vocabulary from French and Latin languages were brought in. The process of supplementing this new language, instead of replacing old words, expanded the vocabulary. All of these changes would eventually lead to the language taking on the name of Middle English. The idea of accepting new words from different languages would remain with the English language, and would remain throughout time up until the English we use today. Webster’s English Dictionary contains words from over 87 different languages, and the total number of words in Modern English is estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000 words (Boxwell). The second closest language that is closest to this word count is French, with only about 150,000 total words (Boxwell). Modern English readers may struggle with Middle English’s phonetic spelling, because it is made up of several regional dialects that all have particular ways of pronouncing their different words.’

The Author of Beowulf: Anonymous

First page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A. xv. / British Library, Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the world is still unsure of who the true author of the phenomenal epic Beowulf is. It is believed that Beowulf was written during the first half of the eighth century (Simpson & David, 2012). Many believe that this is the work of a single poet, who practiced the Christian faith, and demonstrated his religion through the Christian traditions that take place in Beowulf (Simpson & David, 2012). Researchers have even found evidence that the author of Beowulf could be the author of The Odessey and additional ‘Homer’ stories (McMillan, 2014). Editors conclude that the author was “reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry” (Simpson & David, pg. 37).

Historical Characteristics of Beowulf

We use the example of Beowulf to demonstrate how literature was written before the Invasion of the Normans. Beowulf takes on extreme heroic content, and is a perfect representation of the incredible Old English poetry the Anglo-Saxons created.

The title was decided upon by editors of the original text, for there is no sign of a title or author within the epic. The dialect of the text is from Mercia, which is known today as the Midland of England (Simpson & David, 2012). The story’s setting takes place in what is today known as Sweden and Denamark (McMillan, 2014). Beowulf was converted into the West-Saxon dialect, but was damaged severely in a building fire, burning a number of lines that were unable to be recovered (Simpson & David, 2012). Another discussion about the text of Beouwulf are the words used. Some words editors think the author used are “hapax legomena”, or words that were only demonstrated once in a text (Simpson & David, 2012). The two tribes that take on the role of the Danes and the Geats, were two Scandinavian tribes. These tribes lived during a time after the German tribes invaded England, but before the Anglo-Saxtons had settled (Simpson & David, 2012).

Literature before vs. after the Invasion

The heart pounding action packed epic, Beowulf , is filled with elements of courage and prowess in battle, both of which were considered to be important qualities of a warrior. Courage and prowess in battle are also characteristics that society finds important in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. Both of these poems had very similar themes considering that they were about six hundred years apart from each other (Simpson & David 2012). There is one large difference between these two, and it lies in the rhyme scheme(Simpson & David 2012). Beowulf being written by a Saxon which of whom derived from early Germanic tribes was written in blank verse. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight which was written about three hundred-fifty years after the Norman Invasion contained a rhyme scheme in the last four lines of each section. (Simpson & David 2012) Being that French is a romantic language rhyming is a lot more natural, the Norman influence on the English language made rhyming more common in literature, and changed the language forever.

The Author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Anonymous

First page of only surviving manuscript, circa 14th century. / Wikimedia Commons

Once again, this is another unknown author of an incredible piece of literature. Not much can be confirmed about the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, except that he is thought to also be the author of Pearl, Patience, and Purity (Simpson & David, 2012). Critics believe he was a university-educated office clerk, or an official of the estate. He has obtained the nickname of the “Gawain-poet”, or the “Pearl-poet” (SparkNotes, 2015).

Historical Characteristics behind Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written between the time period of 1340-1400 in the West Midlands of England, and takes on the characteristics of the romance genre. The poem was a part of the Alliterative Revival, which was the continuation of the Old English alliterative meter, even after the Norman Invasion in England (Simpson & David, 2012). It was written in Middle English, specifically the English called North West Mildland. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains roots of French Arthurian literature.


Originally published by British Literature Wiki, University of Delaware, via Creative Commons.