THE IMPACT OF THE NORMAN CONQUEST

Introduction Sources of Evidence Late Roman Britain The British Kingdom of Elmet Anglo-Saxon West Yorkshire Religion in the Anglo Saxon and Viking period
Viking Rule in West Yorkshire The impact of the Norman conquest Timeline Photo Gallery
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Historical Background
The story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is too well known to need re-telling here. It is sometimes not appreciated that there had been two earlier battles fought immediately prior to Hastings in Yorkshire, both by the English against Viking invaders who were also attempting to claim the throne of England under Hardrada, king of the Norwegians. The Vikings won the initial battle at Fulford (just outside York) but were decisively defeated by Harold a few days later at Stamford Bridge. Harold travelled North with the nucleus of his army, covering about 200 miles in five days. The English army almost certainly travelled through Castleford up the old Roman road, before heading to York. A few days later they headed South to fight (and lose) to William at Hastings. William did not have an easy time occupying the island of England. Hastings was not the end of the conflict, it was merely the beginning.

After a number of small-scale revolts the whole of the North rose in open rebellion in 1069. In this they were supported by a Danish army. The consequences of the war were terrible for York itself. It had already been looted once by the Normans who had built and garrisoned two castles there. Now they set fire to the houses in the vicinity of the garrisons in an attempt to deny their opponents cover. The fire got out of control, destroyed the Minster and much of the city besides. The Danes and English eventually gained possession of the city and slaughtered the garrison, but by then it was a smoking ruin. As the city was now indefensible the Danes were eventually forced to return to their ships and leave.

William's vengeance on Northumbria was more than thorough. To deny the Danes further support for another potential attack, he divided his troops up into small units and sent them out to burn down villages and to slaughter livestock. There was resistance in other parts of England; by Hereward the Wake in East Anglia and Edric the Wild in the West Midlands for instance, but nowhere suffered retribution as harsh as that experienced by the North of England.

Domesday Book
The effects of this 'Harrying of the North' are recorded in the massive Domesday survey which William had compiled in 1086 as a way of assessing the revenue his new conquest could give him.

Its comparisons between King Edward the Confessor's England in 1066 and the time of its composition give us the best picture we have of late Saxon/early Norman England. Two things are immediately clear: all the major landowners are now Norman and much of what is now West Yorkshire is described as 'waste'.

Landowners after the Norman Conquest
It is not surprising that all the major landowners are of Continental origin in 1086. Many of the English aristocracy died during the warfare in the early years of Norman rule. William simply rewarded his followers with the lands of their opponents. He was careful not to give any of them a single large unit which could be used as a power base against him. The majority of West Yorkshire was divided up into two major landholdings: the Honour of Pontefract and the Manor of Wakefield. The Honour of Pontefract was given to the De Lacy family who also had estates in Clitheroe (Lancashire), while the Manor of Wakefield was given to the Warrenes who had estates as far away as Lewes in Sussex.

Further down the social scale the situation is more difficult to judge. Certainly there are many Norman names among the lesser landholders, but personal name evidence suggests that some of the Saxon gentry gave Norman names to their sons in the hope that they might have a better chance in life. Therefore, some of the minor landholders mentioned in the Domesday may have Norman names but may be of Anglo-Saxon or Viking origin.

Waste
It is certainly true that West Yorkshire was less valuable to the Normans in 1086 than it had been to the Saxons in 1066. Many townships had lost half their value. Others are described as waste or unproductive land.

Historians are divided as to what the cause of this economic depression and unproductive land might be. The traditional view is that William's Harrying of the North was so violent that it touched almost every village in the County. Some historians have suggested that the prolonged warfare in the North may have been a contributory factor. Others are of the opinion that William's troops could not possibly have reached everywhere and so that some of the waste might represent the new Norman landlords moving peasants off marginal land to more fertile ground elsewhere.

Whatever the truth may be the scale of destruction was great. For example the townships of Almondbury, Bradford, Bramley, Elland, Flockton, Huddersfield, Kirkheaton, Morley, Pudsey, Tong, Shipley and Southowram are all described as 'waste'. Most of the rest were down in value e.g. Ackworth (down from 4 to 3), Garforth (down from 60s to 30s), Headingley (down from 40s to 4s), Hemsworth (60s to 20s), Knottingley (from 4 to 40s), Tanshelf (20 to 15), Thorner (from 4 to 10s). A few, such as the joint manor of Kippax and Ledston, which included Barwick in Elmet, retained their value (16). In very rare cases the value of the manor had risen. This is the case with Leeds, which had gone up from 6 to 7.

It took the North a good deal of time to recover from this wholesale destruction. Indeed it has been argued by some historians that one of the reasons that Yorkshire has so many great monasteries is that even in the 12th century when Kirkstall and the other large Cistercian houses were founded, much of Yorkshire was still relatively unproductive. The Norman landlords could therefore endow the new monasteries with relatively large areas of land without suffering great financial loss.

The Anglo-Saxon way of life
The problem then arises of assessing the impact which these events have on the Anglo-Saxon way of life. Certainly it was disastrous for the nobility. The governance of both ecclesiastical and secular institutions was gradually taken from the native English and given to officials from the Continent. Certainly the styles of art and design seem different. One has only to compare the simple 'herringbone' masonry and small windows of the older parts of Kippax church with the Romanesque adornment of Adel to see the difference. On the other hand some of these changes might have come about anyway. Edward the Confessor had his new church at Westminster built in the Romanesque style. He also had a number of nobles from the Continent at his court. It was they who built the first motte and bailey castles in the country.

Perhaps the major factor is not the change itself but the pace of change. The Norman conquest brought to a violent end an Anglo-Saxon way of life that was already beginning to evolve into something more closely resembling its Continental neighbours. What is intriguing is that by the end of the 12th century, the Normans had been assimilated into the English, and not the other way round.

Photo Gallery
Adel: The south door

Kippax: The base of the tower

Further Reading
Faull, M. L. and Stinson, M., 1986, Domesday Book: Yorkshire
Henson, D., 1998, A Guide to late Anglo-Saxon England
Henson, D., 2001, The English Elite in 1066
Higham, N. J., 1993, Northumbria AD 350 - 1100