1066-1086 And All That: The Continental Church and the Fabric of Everyday Life.   Leave a comment

The castles and cathedrals of eleventh and twelfth-century England, looked at in isolation, suggest a picture of violent fracture and sudden discontinuity. By the end of the eleventh century, Papal control of western Christendom from Ireland to Hungary had already become a priority, in order to provide the basis for successful crusades to recover the Holy Land from Ottoman occupation.

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With the threats from paganism and the rise of Islam to the east of Byzantium, Roman Christianity needed rejuvenation, and it is no surprise, therefore, that William received the papal blessing for his invasion of Britain, long viewed by Rome as a somewhat wayward, untrustworthy and vulnerable child on the western fringe of Europe. Schisms in the Roman rite itself began to emerge and Edward the Confessor asserted his Englishness over his Norman connections by appointing a rebel East Anglian bishop, Stigand, as Archbishop of Canterbury, sending his Norman predecessor into exile across the Channel. This was one of the causes for the Papacy turning a dynastic quarrel into a crusade and a Conquest. A new form of ‘muscular’ Christianity was required to secure the future of western Christendom from the Danube to the Severn and around the Mediterranean. Edward the Confessor  had hoped to play his part in this in 1057 by the restoration of Eadmund Ironside’s family to the throne of England through the return from exile of Edward of Wessex. However, the Exile died suddenly, leaving a son Eadgar who was considered too young to accede to the throne in such dark and difficult times. Nevertheless, the return of the exile inadvertently led to the civilisation of Scotland through the marriage of his daughter Margaret (seen above in a stained glass in her chapel at Edinburgh Castle) to Malcolm III (Canmore). Margaret worked tirelessly to bring the practices of the Scottish church into line with the Catholic Church she had grown up in, in Hungary. The marriage led on to the founding of a dynasty of righteous, Pope-fearing Scottish kings, who, following their mother’s example of pious devotion, built many churches and monasteries.

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Yet it was Margaret and Malcolm’s daughter, Edith (christened Matilda), who secured the Saxon succession in Norman times when she became Henry I of England’s Queen Consort in 1100. Their daughter, also Matilda, became Holy Roman Empress and later, Duchess of Anjou. Her brother, William Adelin, heir to the English throne, was killed in The White Ship disaster of 1120 leading to the anarchy and a civil war of succession between her cousin Stephen and herself. Remarried to Geoffrey of Anjou following the death of the Emperor Henry V, Henry I’s decision to name her as his successor was unpopular with the Norman barons at court as well as with the London crowds who would not allow her coronation after Henry’s death in 1135. However, her eldest son was eventually crowned Henry II in 1154. Matilda lived out the rest of her life until her death in 1167 at Rouen in Normandy, working with the church to found Cistercian monasteries, including the one at Mortemer in Normandy. She advised her son and sought to mediate in the Becket controversy. Scotland remained unconquered by the Norman kings, Wales until 1284, but both countries still saw much religious building, so we can calculate that the spate of monastic building in England, given its far larger urban population, would have proceeded at a rapid rate in any case, and was not necessarily the result of military conquest, even if the destruction of great Saxon minsters, like Winchester, was.

Castles and cathedrals are, however, only half the story, and we still need to see what the landscape and archaeological evidence tells us about the fate of ordinary Anglo-Saxons, and what effect the invasion had on the fabric of everyday life. In the north of England, many villages do seem to have been entirely re-planned, or built from scratch, during the twelfth century. It might be that earlier settlements had been destroyed either by Danes or Normans, or that new lords might have wanted tidy nucleated villages, with the stone church and manor house at the centre, in place of earlier displaced and sprawling farms and hamlets. Certainly, some quite drastic reorganisation took place in an attempt to impose, or re-impose, feudal discipline.   However, in East Anglia, there is a discernible continuity in the archaeological record. Pottery was still being made in some quantity, with kilns in several eastern towns, such as Thetford, Norwich and Ipswich, making the hard grey sandy pottery known as Thetford ware. There were also other types of pottery, some more elegant, from different parts of England, some still hand-made. Taken together, this pottery is known as Saxo-Norman ware and dates from the mid-tenth to the mid-twelfth centuries. It spans the Conquest neatly with no discernible break in style, production or distribution. According to this important indicator, the Norman Conquest did not result in a dislocation of trade and industry.

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Another important source of archaeological information is coinage. Edward the Confessor’s coins were thin silver pennies, struck at more than sixty mints, with the bust of the king on one side, together with his name and title, and the name of the mint and the moneyer on the other. The design was changed at regular intervals and people had to bring in their old coins to be exchanged for new. Although a complicated system, it seemed to work well.

When Harold became king, he ordered a new coinage in his own name, and William did the same. Ironically, perhaps, his bust looked rather similar to Harold’s, as can be seen in the groups of coins on the right above, and the names of the moneyers stayed the same. In fact, both the coins and the system of minting stayed the same under all three kings, through all the upheavals of 1066. Coins, like pottery, are Saxo-Norman, without either a stylistic or organisational break, in the mid-eleventh century. Even as late as the reign of Henry I, the majority of moneyers still had Anglo-Saxon names.

Styles of dress and ornament didn’t change much either, apart from the short haircuts favoured by Normans, who thought the Saxons effete, with their longer hair. As throughout the later Saxon and early medieval periods in general, no great quantity of small metal artefacts has been found. The strap-ends and brooches of the eleventh to twelfth centuries are not sufficiently numerous for any real argument to be based upon them.

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Similarly, while the tenants-in-chief and larger landowners may have lived in castles and fortified manor houses, as far as we can tell the freemen, ordinary peasants and townsfolk went on living in the same houses they had lived in before, if they had been left any house at all by their new lords. Changes in village houses came much later, from the thirteenth century onwards, when more solid buildings with stone walls and foundations began to replace the fragile timber-framed, wattle-and-daub cottages. In towns, stone-built houses do appear in the twelfth century and a few of these survive, like Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds. Their association with Jewish traders and financiers reveals that only wealthier people could afford to build in stone, or had the need to protect that wealth with stone walls. There may, in any case, have been stone buildings in mercantile towns like Norwich and Northampton before the Conquest. Neither did town boundaries change much, and some have endured, as at York or Durham, over more than ten centuries to the present day, as have the layouts of streets, houses and plots within them. Within the towns the building and re-building of castles, monasteries and churches certainly caused much destruction and dislocation, but otherwise the pattern of streets and properties remained much as they had been before the Conquest. In York, the Norman cathedral was built, according to correct liturgical orientation, out of alignment with the underlying Roman streets, necessitating a great bend in the road around the minster, but the rest of the streets were left unaltered.

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Outside the towns and cities, in order to discover the impact of the Conquest on the land itself, we need to turn to the local historical record, which confirms our sense of continuity as opposed to change. In Suffolk, the newcomers seem to have had little trouble with the people; the freemen and peasants of the county resigned themselves without a struggle to the exchange of a Danish conqueror for a Norman one. King William parcelled out his new domain to tenants-in-chief who, in turn, sub-let to others in return for payments in service or kind. Every substantial landowner built his own defensive stronghold. The men of Suffolk knew how futile it was to rise against the Normans; They knew how strong the new castles were – they had, after all, built them themselves under the watchful eyes of Norman overseers. Some of these motte and bailey castles disappeared, but many others metamorphosed to meet new demands and changed circumstances. In Clare, for example, Richard FitzGibert was given control of 170 manors in Essex and Suffolk, and he built his castle in the angle formed by the confluence of the Stour and the Chilton. He used the massive hundred-foot high motte of a Saxon earthwork, surmounting it by two baileys, each fenced and moated. Another moat and curtain wall encircled the base of the motte. It was a strong, defensive position, but did not satisfy the twelfth-century owners who replaced the wooden tower with a stone keep and reinforced the curtain wall with four towers. The wall was pierced by elaborate gateways. By the late thirteenth century the need was more for a prestigious residence than a fortress. The keep spawned a variety of domestic offices and other buildings; stables, a malthouse, servants’ quarters, storehouses, kitchens and a chapel. Gardens, pools and a vineyard were laid out and in the fourteenth century accommodation for huntsmen and their dogs was built in the outer bailey.

Specialist Sources:

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

 

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