Histories of England that dwelt on the Battle of Hastings were lampooned over 90 years ago in 1066 and All That. Now a historian says it’s time we put the Normans front and centre again — not simply as conquerors in Britain but as creators of Europe.
Professor Levi Roach, of the University of Exeter, said the adventurers who burst out of northern France and left their mark “from Dublin to Antioch” changed the face of the continent but now receive little attention in popular history compared with their Viking forebears.
Roach, author of a new book on the Normans’ wider story, said historians had previously recognised that a common western European culture emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, the Normans’ part in this was unacknowledged despite their bringing the British Isles, southern Italy and Sicily into Catholic western Europe, contributing to the emergence of Portugal and Spain and building connections across the continent and beyond, in the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Normans were at the very forefront, pushing these developments,” he said. “A number of them would have happened without them, but more slowly, and not necessarily in the way they did. Europe as a concept would have expanded, but not necessarily to the dimensions we now know. Southern Italy and Sicily could easily otherwise have been part of the Islamic world.”
He added: “The big thing for me is that the Normans are more significant than we’ve been thinking but also much more wide-ranging. It’s not just an English phenomenon, it’s not just in Britain and Ireland but well, well beyond there. And there are [also] these false starts that are almost as interesting as where they succeeded. They almost set up kingdoms in Iberia and Asia Minor.”
Roach said the Normans had been overshadowed by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons partly due to hit TV series such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom.
As for rehabilitating the Normans as central to British history, he said: “I want to focus less on 1066 alone, on the Battle of Hastings and William [the Conqueror]. But if we’re using that as a prism through which to view Norman influence that starts before then and continues well after, then it might absolutely be high time to return to a bit more of the Victorian or earlier 20th-century vision of seeing this as a really big turning point. And it’s something that at least symbolises a set of changes, that brings the British Isles politically, culturally and economically, for better and worse, both at times, much more firmly into the Western European mainstream.”
In Empires of the Normans: Makers of Europe, Conquerors of Asia, published on June 23, Roach describes the Normans’ less-known adventures as well as their famous conquests. For example, how Norman mercenaries in the service of the Byzantine, or eastern Roman, empire rebelled and set up a state within Asia Minor during the 1070s. Their leader Roussel de Bailleul, described as a “formidable tyrant” by the Byzantine princess and author Anna Komnene, was defeated, but not before he had contributed to instability that set the stage for the First Crusade.
The crusade, responding to a Byzantine request for aid against Turks advancing in Asia Minor, and seeking to conquer Jerusalem, drew on Norman leadership and manpower. In Roach’s view, it could only go ahead, and succeed, because the Norman conquests of England and Sicily had shown rulers what could be achieved through risky expeditions to foreign lands.
His book also details how Anglo-Normans en route to the Second Crusade played a vital role in the Christian conquest of Moorish Lisbon in 1147, when the commander Hervey de Glanvill was said to have urged on his soldiers by “recalling the virtues of our ancestors” and appealing to the continual valour of the Norman “race”.
Having aided the early expansion of Portugal, they assisted in the siege of Muslim-held Tortosa the following year, strengthening the union of Catalonia with the crown of Aragon. Some stayed on as settlers in the region, leaving the surname “Angles”.
Earlier, the conquest of Byzantine southern Italy and Muslim-held Sicily by the Norman brothers Robert and Roger de Hauteville had brought those regions forever close to Rome. Roger II of Sicily even seized port cities and lands in North Africa but those were lost by his successor.
The Normans traced their origins to Viking warriors granted lands in northern France and their French brides. Roach said the population of Normandy adopted the “northman” identity and it was unlikely that many 11th-century Normans had much Scandinavian DNA. Nevertheless, their connection to the Vikings who had roamed from Newfoundland to Baghdad and conquered large areas of England and France contributed to their broad horizons.
“Ideologically it was a central part of their origin myth and legend. Their very name comes from northmen so was constantly announcing the fact that they were originally an intrusion into France. They were very proud of this, right through to the 12th century and beyond. So when William was thinking of conquering England, [he thought] ‘We came here and conquered this part of Northern France in the first place. My ancestors did that. So why can’t I do it?’”
Roach views Edward the Confessor of England and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as having been essentially Norman, through the strong influence of their Norman mothers. And he argues that Normanisation in England, including the arrival of Francophone aristocrats, Romanesque architecture and ecclesiastical reform from the continent, was well underway in Edward’s reign years before the Norman Conquest.
It was the Normans’ readiness to intermarry and to assimilate into majority cultures or create fusion cultures that meant their descendants identified as English or Sicilian, for example, within a few generations. According to Roach, the Normans were “everywhere and nowhere”, then scarcely to be found outside their original duchy after the mid-13th century.
Although they went native, given time, Roach stresses that their conquests were brutal and their actions in places like Ireland resembled colonisation along 19th-century lines. This didn’t lead directly to the British empire but likely “altered its complexion”.
Levi Roach will speak about Empires of the Normans: Makers of Europe, Conquerors of Asia at 3.45pm on Monday June 20 at the Chalke Valley History Festival.