Who were the Normans?

Who were the Normans?

By Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsMany people know of the Normans due to their conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Many people also know that the Normans controlled Normandy; the place they launched their invasion from. While these are relatively well-known facts there is still some confusion over where they came from.

Questions such as: Where did the Normans originate? Who were the Normans originally? Who were the Normans? Some even ask were Saxons Normans?

There is some mystery over where the Normans came from for many people. Much of the focus is on the Norman invasion of England or just generally about the Norman Conquest. While it is good to know such facts and indeed important markers in British history the Normans existed outside of England and Britain for a long time. They didn’t just appear so who were the Normans originally?

As has already been mentioned in the years before the conquest the Normans ruled over a portion of, what is now, northern France. The story doesn’t stop there though. While the Normans lived in northern France where did the Normans originate? Most accounts suggest the Normans were originally Vikings. While this can easily be shown as their ultimate origin (see below) we know that they did mix with the local Frankish population. This is the reason why we have Norman French.

Let’s go right back to the ancestors of the people we know as Normans setting foot on the shores of what is now northern France.

The Vikings land in France.

During the Viking period, a period generally accepted to be the 9th to 11th centuries, there was a large amount of raiding along the coastlines of northern Europe and the British Isles. The raiders came from various areas although the vast majority of the Vikings came from Scandinavian countries. There were small settlements along the northern coast of Northwest Europe by Norwegian Vikings, some of these Vikings were those who had settled on Ireland’s east coast. Some may well have been from Dublin. The bulk of the Vikings that arrived on the northern shores were Danish in origin.

One of the things to remember here is that the Vikings were not just raiders. They were also traders. The origin of the Vikings is a topic for another article which will be written later so we shall continue.

In the modern world, we consider people to be from countries. This is not odd for us but when you go back; to the time period when the Normans lived in, it is not the right way to look at it. The groupings that eventually became the countries that we have today were starting to form from the groups that were around at this time. Nationalism didn’t exist yet, people felt linked to groups that ranged from families to tribes to wider areas. They held a collective identity that wasn’t directly tied to the land that they occupied.
I f we look at the Normans they were no different. After the initial settlements along the Seine and Loire valleys of Northern France, more Vikings started to arrive on the shores. These new groups of Vikings raided the Frankish settlements and attacked the monasteries. As time went on the invaded further into the Frankish lands and attacked their towns and cities such as Anges, Tours, and Orleans. The Frankish king invited allies, such as the Bretons, to fight against these invaders. These early invasions lasted through the summers with the Vikings heading for home as winter came.

By 845 the raiding Vikings reached Paris. The Franks and their allies fought back and were able to push the Vikings out of Brittany. The raids continued and by 851 the Vikings were also staying for the winter. By this point, the monks were moving inland away from these raids.

The Franks were weak and unable to protect their lands as time went on. In 857 a Breton leader named Salomon took advantage of the situation and took lands across the North coast. These lands were ceded to him by the Franks in 863 with further control being given in 867. When this king died the small empire that he had created collapsed.

By the tenth century, a leader emerged among the Vikings that would change everything. This leaders name was Rollo.


Rollo, sometimes called Rolf, was a Viking who commanded a strong band of raiders. While we can never be certain of his origin it is thought that he was a Norwegian. It is also thought that he was the son of Rognvald, Earl of More. If this is correct then it confirms the reasons for his raiding. There was a lack of usable land in areas controlled by the Vikings. Rollo would have had many kin who would all have received some land which meant that his portion would have been quite small. This happened across much of Scandinavia and is one of the primary reasons why some joined bands of traders and raiders to make a living. They would also look for lands to settle. The Islands to the north of Scotland were colonised by the Vikings as well as areas in the North and East of England as well as the Eastern coast of Ireland.

Rollo was one of the Vikings that went to many of these places to raid and trade. He also raided the area of Northern France known as Neustria. Many of Rollo’s followers were of Danish origin which shows that while a leader may be from one place in Scandinavia he could form a crew from other areas that had close ties. Rollo’s men were well disciplined when fighting on land and he put that to good use. In 911 he raided Northern France and laid siege to the town of Chatres. While the siege was a failure it had an impact on the Frankish King of the time. That King was Charles the Simple.

In 911, or at most only a few years later, Charles met Rollo to discuss the issues that he was facing in the Northern areas of his kingdom. They met at a place called St-Clair-sur-Epte. During the negotiations, Charles the Simple ceded the lands around the Lower Seine to Rollo. Charles had been impressed with the fighting prowess of Rollo’s forces. He knew that he would be unable to end the constant raiding so sought an ally that would answer to him and protect the coast from further raids. Rollo promised to defend the whole river and not to attack Frankish lands.

Norman expansion

Over the next century or more Rollo and his descendants expanded the territory that they had been given to protect. They fought wars against the Bretons to their west and also with the Franks to their east and south. The Frankish kings had had a difficult time controlling the powerful lords in their kingdom and Rollo’s family was no different. At times they allied with Frankish rulers against other Frankish neighbours. They also fought against the Frankish kings.

Over time their conquests were absorbed into the lands that they controlled with the Frankish kings giving them the rights to those lands. By the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Normans had taken a large amount of territory across the North of France. They had spread west to the border of Brittany and the conquests south eventually settled at a border along the river Sarthe.

Throughout this expansion the makeup of the Normans as a group changed significantly.

Norman culture

The Normans that first arrived on the Seine and across the Northern coast of France were what we would consider traditionally Viking. They were warriors and traders. They used longships and had a warrior culture.  The loyalty of the warriors was to their leader. This did not mean that they would support their leader no matter what. While the leader of the particular band gave them opportunities of trade and plunder as well as the potential of some land at various points then the leader was followed. If the leader stopped doing any of these things then he would quickly find himself losing men.

At this point, we must note that these peoples would call themselves Danes, Norwegians or they would refer to themselves as coming from tribal groupings, even Saxons. The Franks did not refer to them by these terms on the whole. They made little distinction between the different raiding parties and termed them men of the North or North men. In the languages of the time they would be termed Northmanni and Normands at various times. This has come down to us today truncated to the word Normans. The name literally means North men and that is exactly what these groups were. The Normans eventually brought this in as part of their culture and as a way of defining their new duchy.

The Normans, as mentioned above, did not view their history as a people that were of a particular place or from a particular piece of land. They viewed themselves as having a cultural history written through their histories. Over time they would integrate within the culture of the northern Franks. They would not completely lose their original culture and would create a culture that would become that of a Frankish culture with some small differences. The collective history of the peoples was a strong part of their identity. Indeed the History of the Normans by Dudo is important for looking at how they viewed their culture. While it is a standard history with propaganda, as all histories written by a people about themselves are, It gives us a glimpse into how they viewed themselves. We can see through Dudo’s writings that they valued their fighting prowess and strength of arms. This is potentially an attitude that had developed from the loyalty to leaders during the earlier Viking period.

The Normans supplanted the host culture by replacing the elite of a region. While Vikings were settled in the lands early on these were concentrated in a few areas. As the Normans expanded they would remove the Bishops, Lords, and leaders of the communities and replace them with their own leaders. Interestingly due to the heavily male dominated immigration, they would have had to marry local Frankish women. This is even suggested of Rollo. Eventually, the Norman aristocracy would be very similar to the Franks that they had displaced. Indeed, by the year 1000, there would have been little to distinguish them culturally from the surrounding Franks. The collective history of the ruling families and their ability to trace their lineage back to Rollo and his men may well have been prised and an effort to retain their identity as a separate people as the merged with the existing peoples.

So were the Normans French? Were they Vikings? Were they Franks? They were all of these things. Indeed their Viking heritage would have been remarkably similar to the heritage of the Anglo-Saxons. Especially those who had lived in Danelaw. The Scandinavians, English, and Normans were all interlinked with influences on their cultures coming from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied. The Scandinavians obviously having little influence outside of the original Nordic cultures although they would surely have brought some cultural practices back with them from their travels.

In short, the Normans were French, they were also Vikings and realistically the best way is to describe them as Normans with their own unique culture.


The Battle of Hastings 1066

One of the most famous battles in British history is the Battle of Hastings. IBy Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commonst could be said that it was this battle that formed what we now know as Britain. It is the point which many trace the British monarchy back to so it certainly did have a lasting impact.

When did the Battle of Hastings take place?

The battle of Hastings took place on the 14th of October 1066. This date has been calculated from the old records. The following excerpt talks about the dating: Finding Fulford – the Search for the First Battle Of 1066. Dates in the past were worked out differently to the way we work them out now. if you look back to the way Romans dated things then this is shown quite clearly. If we calculate the date of the 14th of October as the gregorian calendar then we can end up with a date of the 1st of October. The excerpt looks at a date around the same time and has a much smaller difference. However, the date is worked out we can say that the battle took place on a Saturday in October 1066.

Where did the Battle of Hastings take place?

This might seem obvious at first. Clearly, it happened at Hastings. This isn’t quite accurate though. The battle has actually been placed closer to a village called Battle. This is an English village that grew up around and Abbey that was built to commemorate the Battle of Hastings after William the Conqueror had taken charge of the country. The actual battle took place on a hill known as Senlac hill. There is some dispute over the name which can be followed on Wikipedia: Senlac hill on Wikipedia. Whatever the origins of the name that is the most common name for the hill currently.

In the larger landscape, this was in an area to the south of London and near the South Eastern coast of England in East Sussex. It is a relatively short distance from the channel coast which is no surprise considering where the invasion came from.

What happened at the Battle of Hastings?

Apart from the obvious, that there was a battle, knowing how the battle progressed is also important.

The Norman forces were confronted by the Anglo-Saxon army (by now they could be termed English so I shall use that from now on) as they advanced inland. The English army had marched south from a battle at Stamford bridge where they had faced and defeated a Scandinavian army under the leadership of Harald Hardrada. This Scandinavian army was mainly Norwegian as that is where Harald was king.

The English took positions atop Senlac hill and formed the famous shield wall. Shield walls were a common tactic in this era and had been for a long time. This tactic involved the warriors overlapping their shields to form a wall, hence the name. The Norman force consisted of several parts but was famous for its cavalry. The cavalry at this time would throw their spears, or stab downwards as they attacked their enemies. The Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the battle, shows a few of these Norman warriors charging with a couched lance. A couched lance was one which was tucked under the arm and the force of the attack would be delivered through the impact.

Traditionally the Normans attacked throughout the day. They would charge the shield wall with their cavalry but retreat before they hit the wall. Archers would then fire at the dense formation in an effort to break it up. The cavalry would then charge again and retreat if they stood no chance of breaking through. This carried on for the whole day. Near the end of the day, the Normans managed to draw out some of the English with this feigned retreat tactic and killed them. King Harold of the English was also struck in the eye and died. These factors broke the English formation and the Normans were able to run down and kill the English warriors who were on foot. The battle ended with a decisive victory to the Normans.

Why did the Battle of Hastings happen?

What caused the battle of Hastings? Why did the Normans invade? One of the important factors to consider here is the expansionist nature of the Normans. Since arriving in northern France, and being granted a duchy, they had pushed further and expanded their territory. Groups of Normans had also broken off and invaded Italy as well as fighting as mercenaries. Invading England was the next logical step in this expansion from the Northern coast of France. This doesn’t get o the heart of the matter though. The Invasions in 1066, both the Norweigeien one and the Norman one, were due to arguments of the succession of the English crown. Harald Hardrada claimed the crown on the basis of an old agreement that went back to the time of the Danelaw. William the Conqueror claimed that he had been promised the crown by Edward, the previous king of England. Harold’s claim was that he was the most powerful and richest Englishmen and was elected to the position by his peers.

After the death of Edward, there was always going to be a crisis and it was a matter of time before the three main contenders to the throne claimed it and fought over it. The events of 1066 were going to shape the history of England and the British Isles no matter who won the crown.

What happened after the Battle of Hastings?

William the conqueror spent some time chasing down the fleeing English to make sure that he would not have to fight a second battle to secure the victory he had just had. After he had done this he moved north to try and take London. To do this he needed to cross the Thames. At this timeLonfdon was only on the North bank of the Thames. He was unable to cross the Thames close to London so marching west along its course to find a place where he could cross easily. Eventually, he reached Wallingford, a town in what is now south Oxfordshire. It is here that he crossed the Thames and marched west to take London and have himself crowned as the new king of England. In thanks for the help the people of Wallingford had given him, he built a castle and began work on a new bridge. Wallingford had been a Burh under Alfred. Burhs were fortified towns which had protected the northern borders of Wessex during the time of Alfred but that is a topic for another post. Today Wallingford is still based largely on the Saxon and Norman town plan.

William’s taking fo the English crown lead to a succession of rulers and the replacing of the old Saxon lords with new Norman lords. This wasn’t a complete replacement but enough were replaced to change the aristocracy forever.

If you liked this post then please look at some of the related posts on the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans on this site. If you liked it then others may too so please share on social media.

How did the crusades start?

The crusades were wars sanctioned by the Catholic church during the medieval period. There were many crusades although many people only know about the crusades in the Levant. It was these crusades that were the first crusades that happened so this is understandable.

how did the crusades startHow did the crusades start?

Unfortunately, the reasons for the start of the crusades cannot be boiled down to a single incident or action. While the First crusade as an action can be boiled down this far the reasons why the crusades started lay within the events that were happening throughout Europe and the Byzantine Empire as well as the events in the Middle east.

The first crusade itself was a direct response to a request for aid from the then Emperor Alexius I. The Byzantine Empire had been dramatically changed from its time as part of the wider Roman Empire. After the collapse of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire had tried to stabilise itself as a major power. Over the intervening 600 odd years between the collapse and the first crusade, the Byzantine Empire had had many ups and downs. Although, by the time of Alexius, it had stabilised. Even though Alexius had managed to stop the empire from declining he still had a lack of troops to combat those on his borders and also to reclaim the land that had been lost during the Islamic expansion.

Historians, such as Thomas Asbridge, have suggested that Alexius was expecting a mercenary force that he could use to bolster his forces. This makes a lot of sense if the Byzantine military as a whole is considered. Throughout much of its history, it had used mercenaries to bolster its forces and frequently had the gold to pay for them. Alexius I did indeed have enough gold for such a purpose too. Western and particularly Northwestern Europeans had been used to fill the ranks of the Varangian Guard and were considered one of the elite units of the Byzantine armies.

While this core fact is considered as one of the founding actions of the crusade movement the reasons for the call for aid were deeper than simply to take back Jerusalem. The Byzantine Empire had controlled much of the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean and within that area, there were many large cities that were both prosperous and wealthy which would have helped to support the Empire.

Within Europe, it was the Pope who started the crusading movement. During a large service in November 1095, Pope Urban II decided to put forward the idea of forming a Christian army to retake Jerusalem. This idea is obviously linked to the correspondence received from Alexius I and on the surface could simply be a call for an army to directly help the Byzantine Emperor. The problem with this is that it misses the context within Western Europe at the time. The Church and Urban himself wanted to increase their power. Having an army that is directly run by the Pope and his officials would indeed serve this purpose. While the merits of the actions taken by Urban II can be debated it would be foolhardy to suggest that he did not have an agenda in calling the crusade. When one considers that Jerusalem had been under Islamic control for roughly 400 years it could be considered that the retaking of Jerusalem was not due to the Muslims being in control of Jerusalem but for other reasons. These reasons will be explored in another post as they are not directly relevant here.

So, in conclusion, How did the crusades start?

Pope Urban II called the First crusade in November 1095. This was at least in part due to a request for aid from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I for troops to help him protect his Eastern borders from the Turkish kingdoms. The Europeans who heard this helped spread the message gathering troops and equipment to set off in 1096.

Update to the Normans: Norman Castles

A new page is up describing Norman castles. Let me know what you think and if there are any castles you wish me to look at please comment below!

Norman Castles