This comic-strip image of the Norman Conquest, based partly on its tenth-century equivalent, the Bayeux Tapestry, is of yet another a smash and grab raid by another group of land-hungry and bloodthirsty Vikings who, this time, had ominously settled just across the English Channel and were looking for an opportunity to enslave the freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons in an iron system of feudal dues. The legendary story continues with their tireless, heroic and ultimately cataclysmic cavalry charges on the Saxon shield wall at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, followed by their ruthless mopping up the resistance by Hereward the Wake in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, and their terrorising, or harrying of the north with fire and sword. They then forced the defeated peasants to build castles and manor houses, from which they could supervise the whole business of collecting taxes, stealing what little surplus food the Saxons were able to produce for banquets held in their great halls. This went on for the next two hundred years or so, so we are told, until Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart helped the Saxons to throw off the Norman Yoke, after which the new lords learnt English and began to show some respect for their peasantry.
This was not simply the view lampooned in the popular book, 1066 and All That, published for the nine hundredth anniversary of Hastings, but was the one taken quite seriously by many of Cromwell’s soldiers in their quarrel with Charles I, who, among other blunders, made the mistake of reviving ancient royal rights from the days of bad King John. The latter, after all, had been forced to agree to a list of the people’s demands in Magna Carta.
This comic-strip, super-hero and super-villain version of events is an important part of English mythology, but it does not match much of the written record, let alone the architectural and archaeological evidence spanning the early middle ages, from the reign of William I to that of Edward I. All these sources of evidence need to be evaluated in the context of local, national and international narratives and contexts, if we are to understand how a united English nation state came about by the early part of the thirteenth century, the leading but not all-powerful kingdom within the British Isles, if not on the immediate continent as well.
More than conquerors, less than strangers…
To begin by focusing on the local, which was, after all, the way that most people organised and made sense of their lives in the eleventh century, by the time of the Domesday Survey (1086) the population of the County of Suffolk was 20,491, which made it the most densely populated populated county in England with the possible exception of Middlesex. However, the Survey tended to underestimate the total population, because the numbers of unfree villeins, cottars and bordars among the peasants were not always counted, and the numbers and proportion of freemen were greater in Suffolk than elsewhere. Rich soil, the influx of Saxon settlers from elsewhere, and the long period of peace at the turn for much of the tenth century help explain why the county recovered its population more quickly than most from the nightmare ninth century.
These conditions helped to establish the tradition of fierce independence of the people of Suffolk, since it became known as a shire of freeholder and smallholder farmers. According to Domesday there were nearly 7,500 freemen in Suffolk, compared with under a thousand serfs. The proportion of independent landholders to unfree peasants was quite different in Suffolk and Norfolk from that in other shires. Although the average freeman could boast only a few acres, far fewer than in a carucate, he could call himself his own man, something which has always been important to East Anglians. He could also join together with other freemen to farm the land together, particularly at more labour-intensive times of the year, like ploughing and harvest. This was because the land holdings were not scattered around the village, but concentrated in compact blocks edged by markers, if not hedges. On them the farmers were able to make teams of oxen to drive their ploughs, and to pasture their sheep, pigs and cattle together. They would also enjoy grazing rights on nearby heath and woodland. Every autumn they slaughtered most of their beasts and preserved the meat with salt from the saltpans of the Wash or Stour estuary. Fowls, river fish and sea fish supplemented their diet, and their own flocks and herds provided them with a good supply of clothes. Most of these people were self-sufficient and produced a surplus for market.
The ducal family of William of Normandy claimed descent from Rollo, a Viking leader who was ceded lands in northern France by Charles the Simple in 911. Rollo and his followers were Scandinavians, like those who had been settling in eastern England, so Normandy takes its name from them, Normannia. However, unlike the Danes, whose invasion of England fifty years previously had placed their King Cnut on the throne, the conquerors this time were seen as Frenchmen, rather than Norsemen. On the Bayeux Tapestry the battle is seen as being between Angli et Franci. Examining the place-names, we can tell that, just as with the Danes who settled in eastern England, or the Norwegians who settled in Cumbria, the Scandinavian element in the population, though significant in pockets, was not overwhelming. Eleventh-century Normandy preserved many of the institutions of Carolingian France and was in many ways simply another part of the patchwork of principalities which developed after the waning of Charlemagne’s empire.
Normandy was better organised and stronger militarily than many of the other fragments, especially under Duke William. He may have owed his toughness to Viking ancestors, but successive dukes had married into other French and Breton ruling families, while William himself was the illegitimate son of a Falaise serving girl about whom we know very little. Within two generations even the dukes themselves had ceased to speak Norse as their native language, while the natives of Rouen spoke Roman rather than Norse at the time of the Conquest.
Archaeological evidence for the Norsemen is even harder to come by in Normandy than it is in Britain. A few Viking burials have been discovered or discerned from finds of jewellery or weapons. Some of the latter seem to have been forged in Britain, suggesting they had been acquired on previous campaigns there. There are also some camps, earthworks which have been excavated, with the conclusion being drawn that they were earlier fortifications which were possibly reoccupied and reused by Vikings.
In any case, the army which invaded England in 1066 were by no means exclusively Norman, nor were the new aristocrats after 1066. It included men from many parts of France, who traced their ancestry to Flanders or Aquitaine, Anjou or Brittany, rather than to Normandy. Some of this can be seen in relation to my own family history. The Gullivers, who later gave their name to one of the best-known books in English, were originally known by the French name, Goullafre, since they really did come over with the conqueror from St Evreux in Normandy where they were Lords of Mesnil Bernard. There is still a small town, or large village there called La Goulafriere. The word apparently means caterpillar in French, which is why it later became a synonym for glutton, though it originally had a non-pejorative meaning. Guillaume Goullafre’sname can be found in the archives of Bayeux Cathedral (Chronology of the Ancient Nobility of the Duchy of Normandy, 1087 – 1096) where it appears on a list of lords who accompanied Robert Duke of Normandy on the first crusade to Palestine in 1096. He is also listed as one of the Knights Templar. Gulefrias is recorded as surname in France in 1106, and a further French record, Persée’s Armorial de France has a Goullafre as one who fought against the Turks in Hungary in 1509. In England the name goes through several mutations and variations between 1086 and 1654 (Goulafre, Gulafra, Golafre, Golefer, Gullifer, Gulliford, Galover) until it eventually emerges as Gulliver in common usage.
Leland also refers to a Guillaume Goulaffre (Dives Roll) and a Roger Gulafre, who claimed property from St. Evroult in Normandy, where a great Abbey still stands. It is Roger who is referred to as Lord of Mesnil Bernard. William Gulafre, as he seems to have become known in England, had great estates in Suffolk in 1086 (Domesday) and gave tithes to Eye Abbey. William’s son, Roger Gulafre, was also of Suffolk in 1130 (Rot. Pip.), and Philip Gulafre held four fees in barony in the same county later in the twelfth century, as well as manors in Essex.
These names and details are confirmed, briefly, in other manuscript sources from the period, and the printed versions of the manorial records furnish us with more details, which I shall return to later. Although themselves French-Norman in origin, they seem to have married into both French and Breton noble families who also came to Suffolk during the Conquest.
Just as before the Conquest, where there were markets, market-towns grew around them, but a growing central government now began to regulate this in order to ensure that there was a network of defensible towns, or burghs, with, wherever possible, gates, towers and solid stone walls, capable of withstanding any further incursions. In order to standardise administrative procedures throughout the newly-united country, kings and councillors needed local strongholds from which taxes could be collected securely and markets and trade properly overseen. Ipswich, Dunwich, Bury St Edmunds, Sudbury and Thetford were the first centres which could be described as towns. Sudbury, whose importance was essentially military, was the smallest, with a population of only five hundred, while the ports of Dunwich and Ipswich could boast 3,000 and 1,300 respectively. Bury, with its revived monastic life, also had about three thousand souls, while Thetford, already an important monastic centre, had 5,000, about the same size as its population today. All of these were of sufficient importance to have royal mints established in them.