History of the norman conquest of england, its causes and its results (Freeman 1867)




  Importance of the Norman Conquest, not as the beginning of English history, but as his chief turning-point.

(pages 1 – 4 de l’introduction)

THE Norman Conquest is the great turning-point in the history of the English nation. Since the first settlement of the English in Britain, the introduction of Christianity is the only event which can compare beginning with it in importance. And there is this wide difference between the two. The introduction of Christianity was an event which could hardly fail to happen sooner or later; in accepting the Gospel, the English only followed the same law which, sooner or later, affected all the Teutonic nations. But the Norman Conquest is something which stands without a parallel in any other Teutonic land. If that Conquest be only looked on in its true light, it is impossible to exaggerate its importance. And yet there is no event whose true nature has been more commonly and more utterly mistaken. No event is less fitted to be taken, as it too often has been taken, for the beginning of our national history. For its whole importance is not the importance which belongs to a beginning, but the importance which belongs to a turning-point. The Norman Conquest brought with it a most extensive foreign infusion, which affected our blood, our language, our laws, our arts; still it was only an infusion ; the older and stronger elements still survived, and in the long run they again made good their supremacy. So far from being the beginning of our national history, the Norman Conquest was the temporary overthrow of our national being. But it was only a temporary overthrow. To a superficial observer the English people might seem for a while to be wiped out of the roll-call of the nations, or to exist only as the bondmen of foreign rulers in their own land. But in a few generations we led captive our conquerors; England was England once again, and the descendants of the Norman invaders were found to be among the truest of Englishmen. England may be as justly proud of rearing such step-children as Simon of Montfort and Edward the First as of being the natural mother of Alfred and of Harold. In no part of history can any event be truly understood without reference to the events which went before it and which prepared the way for it. But in no case is such reference more needful than in dealing with an event like that with which we are now concerned. The whole importance of the Norman Conquest consists in the effect which it had on an existing nation, humbled indeed, but neither wiped out nor utterly enslaved, in the changes which it wrought on an existing constitution, which was by degrees greatly modified, but which was never either wholly abolished or wholly trampled under foot. William, King of the English, claimed to reign as the lawful successor of the Kings of the English who reigned before him. He claimed to inherit their rights, and he professed to govern according to their laws. His position therefore, and the whole nature of the great revolution which he wrought, is utterly unintelligible without a full understanding of the state of things which he found existing. Even when one nation actually displaces another, some knowledge of the condition of the displaced nation is necessary to understand the position of the displacing nation. The English Conquest of Britain cannot be thoroughly understood without some knowledge of the earlier history of the Celt and the Roman. But when there is no displacement of a nation, when there is not even the utter overthrow of a constitution, when there are only changes, however many and important, wrought in an existing system, a knowledge of the earlier state of things is an absolutely essential part of any knowledge of the later. The Norman Conquest of England is simply an insoluble puzzle without a clear notion of the condition of England and the English people at the time when the Conqueror and his followers first set foot upon our shores.

The Norman Conquest again is an event which stands by itself in the history of Europe. It took place at a transitional period in the world’s developement. Those elements, Roman and Teutonic, Imperial and Ecclesiastical, which stood, as it were, side by side in the system of the early middle age, were then being fused together into the later system of feudal, papal, crusading, Europe. The Conquest itself was one of the most important steps in the change. A kingdom which had hitherto been purely Teutonic was brought within the sphere of the laws, the manners, the speech, of the Romance nations. At the very moment when Pope and Caesar held each other in the death-grasp, a church which had hitherto maintained a sort of insular and barbaric independence was brought into a far more intimate connexion with the Roman See. And, as a conquest, compared with earlier and with later conquests, it holds a middle position between the two classes, and shares somewhat of the nature of both. It was something less than such conquests as form the main subject of history during the great Wandering of the Nations. It was something more than those political conquests which fill up too large a space in the history of modern times. It was much less than a national migration; it was much more than a mere change of frontier or of dynasty. It was not such a change as when the first English conquerors slew, expelled, or enslaved the whole nation of the vanquished Britons. It was not quest less such a change as when Goths or Burgundians sat down as a ruling people preserving their own language and their own law, and leaving the language and law of Rome to the vanquished Romans. But it was a far greater change than commonly follows on the transfer of a province from one sovereign to another, or even on the forcible acquisition of a crown by an alien dynasty. The conquest of England by William wrought less immediate change than the conquest of Africa by Genseric; it wrought a greater immediate change than the conquest of Sicily by Charles of Anjou. It brought with it not only a new dynasty, but a new nobility; it did not expel or transplant the English nation or any part of it, but it gradually deprived the leading men and families of England of their lands and offices, and thrust them down into a secondary position under alien intruders. It did not at once sweep away the old laws and liberties of the land; but it at once changed the manner and spirit of their administration, and it opened the way for endless later changes in the laws themselves. It did not abolish the English language; but it brought in a new language by its side, which for a while supplanted it as the language of polite intercourse, and which did not yield to the reviving elder tongue till it had affected it by the largest infusion that the vocabulary of one European tongue ever received from another. The most important of the formal changes for changes in legislation, in language, in the system of government and in the tenure of land, were no immediate later date, consequences of the Conquest, no mere innovations of the reign of William. They were the developements of a later age, when the Norman as well as the Englishman found himself under the yoke of a foreign master. The distinct changes in law and government which we commonly attribute to William the Norman belong, in truth in by far the greatest number of cases, to his great-grandson Henry the Angevin. But the reign of William paved the way for the reign of Henry;

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EXTRAIT (p. 166 et suiv.)

THE two foreign conquests of England which form the main subject of English history during the eleventh century were effected by nations which were originally of the same stock. First came the Danes themselves; then came the Normans, the descendants of Danish or other Scandinavian settlers in Gaul. In mere blood therefore the Normans were in some measure allied to all the Teutonic inhabitants of Britain, and they were closely allied to the descendants of the Danish settlers in the North and East of England. And there can be little doubt that this original community of blood really had an important practical effect, and that the final fusion of Normans and English was greatly promoted by the fact that conquerors and conquered were in truth kinsmen. But this influence was a purely silent one, and was wholly unrecognized by those on whom it acted. Neither side thought at all of any kindred as existing between them. And, to all appearance, no two nations of Western Europe could have been found which, in speech, feelings, and manners, differed more widely from one another. The Danes who settled in England had been easily turned into Englishmen. Though the likeness of speech and institutions between the two nations has often been exaggerated, it was something not only real but palpable. It needed no historical research to find it out; it was something which men of both nations could feel for themselves. Amongst the various Teutonic settlers in Britain, we can well believe that there were some whose original kindred with the Teutons of Scandinavia was quite as close as their original kindred with some of their fellow Teutons in Britain. Anyhow the languages of the two nations were closely allied; their institutions were very similar those of England being doubtless the more advanced and regularly organized of the two. Religion formed the main difference between them; but the Danes in England soon adopted the Christian faith, and they were followed, after no very great interval, by their brethren in Denmark. Thus the Danish settler in England, when once baptized, easily became an Englishman, differing from the Angle or the Saxon only as the Angle and the Saxon differed from one another. This absorption into a kindred nation is less remarkable than the fact that the same people should, with not much greater difficulty, have adopted a language and culture which was wholly alien to them. For, as the Danes who settled in England became Englishmen, so the Danes who become settled in Gaul equally became Frenchmen. The Normans of the eleventh century were men of Scandinavian descent who had cast away every outward trace of the language, manners, and feelings which made them kindred to Englishmen, and had adopted instead the language, manners, and feelings of Latin France. Before they landed in England, they had become Frenchmen; though still proud of the Norman name, they were content, as speakers of the French language, to call themselves Frenchmen in distinction from the Teutonic English. No doubt the old Scandinavian element was still at work within them; it made them Frenchmen on a far nobler and grander scale than other Frenchmen, and it enabled them, when they had once settled in England, unconsciously, but surely, to become Englishmen. Still, when they followed their Duke to the Conquest of England, they were in every outward respect Frenchmen and no longer Scandinavians. In a word, they were no longer Northmen but Normans; the change in the form of the name aptly expresses the change in those who bore it.

§ 1. General Effects of the Scandinavian Settlement in Gaul.

The settlement of the Northmen in Gaul, and their subsequent change into Normans, is the great event of the first half of the tenth century; it challenges a place in Gaul, alongside of the restoration of the Empire by Otto in the second half. Its beginnings indeed might seem small. A band of Scandinavian pirates settled in Gaul, exactly as another band of Scandinavian pirates had, thirty years before, settled in Eastern Britain. In both cases the sovereign of the invaded land found it expedient to secure the safety of the rest of his dominions, by surrendering a portion of them to the invader, and by requiring baptism and nominal homage as guaranties for peace and good neighbourhood. The settlement of Rolf in Neustria is exactly analogous to the settlement of Guthrum in East-Anglia. Charles the Simple and his counsellors may well have justified their act to themselves by quoting the example of the Great Alfred. But the results of the two events were widely different. The East-Anglian and Northumbrian Danes were fused into the general mass of Englishmen, and they were soon distinguished from other Englishmen by nothing more than mere provincial differences. But the settlement of Rolf in Neustria had far wider results. It affected the later history of all Europe. The Scandinavians in Gaul embraced the creed the language, and the manners of their French neighbours, without losing a whit of their old Scandinavian vigour and love of adventure. The people thus formed became the foremost apostles alike of French chivalry and of Latin Christianity. They were the Saracens of Christendom, spreading themselves over every corner of the world and appearing in almost every character. They were the foremost in devotion, the most fervent votaries of their adopted creed, the most lavish in gifts to holy places at home, the most unwearied in pilgrimages to holy places abroad. And yet none knew better how to hold their own against Pope and Prelate; the special children of the Church were as little disposed to unconditional obedience as the most stiff-necked of Ghibelines. And they were no less the foremost in war; they were mercenaries, crusaders, plunderers, conquerors; but they had changed Change their element, they had changed their mode of warfare; no Norman fleets went forth on the errand of the old Wikings; the mounted knight and the unerring bowman had taken the place of the elder tactics which made the fortress of shields invincible. North, south, east, the Norman lances were lifted; and they were lifted in the most opposite of causes. Norman warriors pressed into the remotest East to guard Eastern Christendom against the first Turkish invader, and other Norman warriors were soon found to be the most dangerous enemies of Eastern Christendom in its own home. If the Norman fought by the side of Rômanos at Manzikert, he threatened the Empire of Alexios with destruction at Dyrrhachion. His conquests brought with them the most opposite results in different lands […]

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