The Consequences of the Norman Conquest

William the Conqueror in the Bayeux Tapestry
William the Conqueror in the Bayeux Tapestry. Wikimedia Commons

The success of William of Normandy (1028–1087)'s Norman Conquest of 1066, when he seized the crown from Harold II (1022–1066), was once credited with bringing in a host of new legal, political and social changes to England, effectively marking 1066 as the start of a new age in English history. Historians now believe the reality is more nuanced, with more inherited from the Anglo-Saxons, and more developed as a reaction to what was happening in England, rather than the Normans simply recreating Normandy in their new land. Nevertheless, the Norman Conquest still bought many changes. The following is a list of the major effects.

Changes Impacting the Elites

  • Anglo-Saxon elites, the largest landholders in England, were replaced by Franco-Normans. Those Anglo-Saxons nobles who had survived the battles of 1066 had the chance to serve William and retain power and land, but many rebelled over contentious issues, and soon William had turned away from compromise to importing loyal men from the continent. By William’s death, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was all but replaced. In the Domesday book of 1086, there are only four large English landowners. However, there may only have been around 25,000 Franco-Normans out of a population of two million when William died. There was not a massive importation of a new Norman population, just the people at the top.
  • The idea that a landowner held two types of land—his "patrimony," the family land which he had inherited, and his extended lands which he had conquered—and the idea that these lands could go to different heirs, came into England with the Normans. Familial relationships of heirs to parents, changed as a result.
  • The power of the earls was reduced after Anglo-Saxon rebellions. Earls had their lands stripped from them, with correspondingly reduced wealth and influence.
  • Higher taxes: most monarchs are criticized for heavy taxes, and William I was no exception. But he had to raise funds for the occupation and pacification of England.

Changes to the Church

  • Like the landowning elites, many of the upper reaches of church government was replaced. By 1087, eleven of fifteen bishops were Norman, and only one of the other four was English. The church had power over people and land, and now William had power over them.
  • Far more English land was given to continental monasteries, to hold as ‘alien priories’, then before the Norman Conquest. Indeed, more monasteries were founded in England.

Changes to the Built Environment

  • Continental architecture was imported en mass. Every major Anglo-Saxon cathedral or abbey, apart from Westminster, was rebuilt bigger and more fashionably. Parish churches were also widely rebuilt in stone.
  • Anglo-Saxons did not, in general, build castles, and the Normans started a huge building program in Norman castles in order to help secure their power. The most common early type was wooden, but stone followed. The castle building habits of the Normans has left a mark on England still visible to the eye (and the tourist industry is thankful for it.)
  • Royal forests, with their own laws, were created.

Changes for Commoners

  • The importance of receiving land from a lord in return for loyalty and service grew enormously under the Normans, who created a system of land tenure unmatched in Europe. Quite how homogeneous this system was (probably not very), and whether it can be called feudal (probably not) are still being discussed. Before the conquest, Anglo-Saxons owed an amount of service based on regularized units of land holding; afterward, they owed service based entirely on the settlement they had achieved with their overlord or the king.
  • There was a large decline in the numbers of free peasants, who were lower class workers who could quit their land in search of new landlords.

Changes in Justice System

  • A new court, known as the Lords, honorial or seigniorial, was created. They were held, as the name suggests, by lords for their tenants, and have been called a key part of the “feudal” system.
  • Murdrum fines: if a Norman was killed, and the killer not identified, the entire English community could be fined. That this law was needed perhaps reflects on the problems faced by the Norman raiders.
  • Trial by battle was introduced.

International Changes

  • The links between Scandinavia and England were deeply severed. Instead, England was brought closer to events in France and this region of the continent, leading to the Angevin Empire and then the Hundred Years War. Before 1066 England had seemed destined to stay in the orbit of Scandinavian, whose conquerors had taken hold of large chunks of the British Isles. After 1066 England looked south.
  • Increased use of writing in government. While the Anglo-Saxons had written some things down, Anglo-Norman government vastly increased it.
  • After 1070, Latin replaced English as the language of government.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Chibnall, Marjorie. "The Debate on the Norman Conquest." Manchester UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.
  • Loyn, H. R. "Anglo Saxon England and the Norman Conquest." 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Huscroft, Richard. "The Norman Conquest: A New Introduction." London: Routledge, 2013. 
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Wilde, Robert. "The Consequences of the Norman Conquest." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, September 1). The Consequences of the Norman Conquest. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Consequences of the Norman Conquest." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).