The Normans (literally meaning “Man coming from the North”) came from the Scandinavian Peninsula, They were initially part of the Viking group but then They settled in the North of France and acquired French culture and language. They invaded the British Isles in 1066 with their chief William, duke of Normandy, who faced the Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings. The main introductions of the Normans in England were the French language and the feudal system.
The Normans weren't well accepted by the population of Britain and, in the first period of their occupation, they suffered many uprisings. For this reason they built several castles in order to keep the population under control.
In 1086 William made a land register of his territory to know how much money He could collect in terms of taxes and the results of this survey were written down in the Domesday Book, which is a valuable historical document regarding the social structure of England after the conquest of the Normans.
At the base of the pyramid were the peasants who were divided in two categories:
- Villeins, freemen who owned their land and they could pass it to subsequent generations;
- Serfs, they had neither land nor freedom.
As the nobles became wealthier They didn't want to fight any longer in wars with the king but They began giving the overlords large amounts of money that was used to pay professional soldiers.
The cost of war obliged the king to ask merchant financiers and, in this way, the merchants acquired a greater role in the court.
The consequences of the feudal system were the acquisition of power by merchants and barons and the introduction of a new profession among the underclasses: the paid soldier.
This structure was weakened under the reign of King Henry II (1154-89) by the introduction of the Common Law. This legal reform, unlike the previous one which was linked to an absolute idea of justice given by the king, referred to a system based on custom and comparison of previous cases. In this period the trial by jury was also established and it is still used today in Britain.
The alliance between barons and merchants was consolidated when King John (1199-1216) imposed higher taxes, in fact, They forced him to sign a document : the Magna Charta(1215).
This official paper stipulated that:
1) the king couldn’t claim taxes without the approval of a council;
2) no free men could be arrested or imprisoned without fair trial.
This document marked a power transfer from the king to a small elite of nobles, merchants and churchmen and it created the conditions for the rise of middle classes.
A first parliament of nobles was formed in 1258 and it began to govern the country, but this innovation was at first abolished by Edward I but then he revived the idea in 1295. The parliament hosted barons, clergy, knights, town citizens. This first parliament was the model for the modern parliament.
The relationship between Church and State was often uneasy, an example of this is the case of Thomas Becket. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II but He betrayed his trust because He didn’t approve the Constitution of Clarendon, a reform designed to give the king authority in appointing bishops and enable the trial for clergymen. Finally Becket was murdered by the king and was made a saint.
By the 14th century the Church was rich and corrupted and as a reaction to this situation the Lollardy reform movement was born, led by John Wycliffe. It was based on the study of the bible and it aimed to use church money for charity. This movement was soon repressed and many Lollards were burnt as heretics. They anticipated the reformation of the 16th century.
The Norman conquest united England with Normandy (north of France). For this reason there were continuous battles between French and British people. These disputes became a real war in 1337 with the Hundred Years’ War. The English army won some battles but finally. They were defeated in the decisive one in 1453.
Right after the end of the war the main English nobles’family, Lancaster and York, started a civil war to acquire the reign of England. This conflict went on for 30 years and it was called the “War of the Roses” (Emblem of the York family ->white rose, Lancaster family->red rose)
The idea of chivalry was introduced in 12th century. The knights had values to believe in such as loyalty, bravery, honesty, glory. This idea was central in courtly romances built around the figure of King Arthur. This conviction was used by the government and the king to make public opinion accept the fact that war campaigns were justified and also represented as a noble occupation. In this period the news was selected to transmit this opinion and also public events such as coronations became occasion of propaganda, appealing to sentiments of patriotism and Christianity.