What did the Normans ever do for us?
History buff Steve Roberts takes us on his travels around England, with his tongue slightly in cheek, as he looks back at the legacy of the Normans and Angevins
October 2017 (Rufus Stone)
What did the Normans ever do for us? Well, they gave us a really nice memorial in the New Forest where one of their kings got himself shot by an arrow. I haven’t quite started at the start though. The start was 14 October 1066 and the Battle of Hastings (of which more later). William the Conqueror had prevailed, Harold, the last Saxon king, had perished, and we had a Norman king on the throne.
One thing William I (the Conqueror) did was create the New Forest (‘Nova Foresta’), in 1079, to satisfy the Normans’ insatiable love of hunting. The Forest became a private hunting ground, mainly for deer, with the indigenous Saxons losing out again, as some 20 hamlets and farmsteads made way (of course, the Saxons were not really indigenous as they’d come from today’s Germany and Denmark from the 5th century AD, but that is another story entirely).
The Normans enacted harsh forest laws to prevent the Saxons interfering with the hunt, for example, by putting up inconvenient fencing they’d acquired from their local DIY store. Obstructing the free running of boar and deer was a real ‘no no’. There was a silver lining though: in return the locals were given reciprocal rights to graze their animals in the Forest. Ah, I hear you say, the beginning of commoners’ rights.
The New Forest would get a mention in the Domesday Book, that inventory of the Conqueror’s new domain (actually it was the only forest to be described in detail). Now, it’s a funny thing, but two of William’s sons came to grief in the New Forest. The first was lesser-known Richard, the victim of either a hunting accident, or pestilence. There was a nephew who also came a cropper in the Forest. The Saxons began feeling a tad smug: the Conqueror was surely being punished for his crimes. The other son who got his comeuppance in the Forest was altogether more famous, or at least his denouement was.
The first Norman king died in 1087 to be succeeded by another son, William II (or Rufus). I rocked up at the Rufus Stone to survey the scene. It’s a lovely spot, albeit quite close to a busy dual-carriageway. You can still recreate 2 August 1100 in your mind’s eye. Rufus was shot in the breast by a stray arrow, the stone supposedly erected on the site of the tree that said missile deflected off on its way into the royal personage. Rufus’s younger brother, Henry, was among the hunting party and rattled off to Winchester to claim treasury and crown, while his late brother was bundled on a cart, heading to the same city’s cathedral for burial. Henry’s speed was impressive, rather like some of the mean-looking individuals on that dual-carriageway. One is tempted to say he had his running-shoes on, ready to go.
I like a good mystery and there are plenty of them in British history. How stray was the ‘stray’ arrow? We’ll never know. Sometimes when I go to the Rufus Stone I’m sure I can hear the sound of the Saxon ‘beaters’ smashing about in the woods, trying to scare the deer out into the open. That could just be modern folk making noise, of course, which is sadly rather too prevalent these days. The stone is in a clearing with the tree-line beyond. You can just imagine the deer breaking cover and Walter Tirel taking a pot-shot. 'Oh dear, I shot the king'. I was recently introduced to a modern-day ‘beater’. It’s nice to know that these old traditions are still going strong a millennium on.
August 2016 (Tollard Royal & Clarendon, Wiltshire)
I like to jump about in my blogs and this one will be no exception. Rufus, of course, was jumping about no more, unless you believe the story that his ghost pops up at the stone every 2 August. The previous August I’d been on the trail of an Angevin king who ends our story, so it’s time to leap from beginning to end. ‘Angevin’ comes from Anjou in France, the Normans having morphed into Angevins in the form of Henry II, who’d acquired more lands on the continent than I’ve had hit records.
John brought up the rear as far as the Angevins were concerned and also appears to have been at the back of the queue where kingly attributes were concerned. He’s the pantomime villain of many movies for good reason. He seems to have taken cunning, treachery and disloyalty to whole new levels. He also suffered from bad luck, which is not recommended when you’re a king.
I was in Wiltshire, at Tollard Royal (John put the ‘Royal’ into Tollard having spent a lot of time here between around 1200 and 1213, which accounts for most of his reign). It is said that he lived in ‘King John’s House’: uncanny that he was able to find a house of that name. Jesting aside, I am guessing that this will have been his hunting lodge, for John had inherited that Norman love of hunting we spoke of earlier. I found a pub for my lunch (‘The King John Inn’, no less) and today’s ‘King John’s House’, which has a 13th century building at its heart and appears to date to not long after John himself.
I also pitched up at Clarendon, near Salisbury, where there are the remains of a royal palace. King John was here. He was indeed. As his Barons tried to bring the feckless John to book, they ‘requested’ a pre-meeting with him, before the main event at Runnymede (see below). John, true to form, failed to turn up, heading instead to Clarendon, where he set his mind to trying to outwit his most powerful magnates. He didn’t succeed.
Ruined Clarendon is a nice spot today. I found the ruins tricky to find and had to ask for directions, then found myself looking at signage warning of pheasants. I didn’t see any, although I did have llamas for company. This place has resonance, a landscape where John walked and wracked his brains: ruins that pre-date Salisbury Cathedral.
February 2015 (Runnymede, Surrey)
Fortunately, for my contextual contortions, I had already visited Runnymede in Surrey. I was writing an article to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta (‘Great Charter’) and wanted to see where it had all happened.
John may have slipped the net when he wriggled his way to Clarendon, but there was no escaping the wrath of the Barons at Runnymede. The significance of what occurred here cannot be understated. When you digest clauses that guarantee every free man security from illegal interference in his person or property (clause 39) and justice to everyone (clause 40), the legacy is easily understood. It also brings a lump to your throat. These are conditions (aspirations if you will) that have flown round the world.
I liked some of the signage: ‘the birthplace of modern democracy’. It makes your heart skip a beat. John was just left gnashing his molars. There was another one I liked: ‘Magna Carta Tearoom’. I wonder whether John popped in for a coffee and scone like I did, or whether he was just too disgruntled and humiliated to contemplate sustenance.
The worldwide impact of this place is exemplified by the fact that the main memorial was erected by the Americans in 1957. Reassuringly though, it has a pillar of English granite at its heart, and is surrounded by noble English oak trees. The heart flutters once more. ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law,’ it says. It’s very moving that a nation that didn’t even exist back then (and wouldn’t do for more than half a millennium), should hold such store by it. The Americans may have given us many things (fast food, Hollywood and jeans), but Magna Carta is something we sent back the other way.
February 2015 (Battle, Sussex)
I’m back at the start. Earlier in 2015 I was yomping around that battlefield in Sussex, which is not at Hastings, but Battle.
It’s a strange feeling sometimes walking a battlefield, that realisation that men fought and died right here for whatever cause they believed in. 1066 is, of course, one of the few dates in English history that most Brits know these days, due largely to ‘smartphone myopia’, where folk seem to be entranced by a little screen just in front of their mugs, largely to the exclusion of all else, including that old, annoying habit otherwise known as ‘reading’. Mind, having said that, I suppose a smartphone might have baled Harold out, as he could have summoned up reinforcements quite easily.
One thing that is not always appreciated about 1066 is that it was a year of three battles. The Battle of Fulford, or Gate Fulford, had established the credentials of a large Norwegian (Viking) aspirant to the English throne, who’d then had his pretensions put into sad perspective when he was slain at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This had nothing whatsoever to do with a football ground in London, both of the eliminator battles having been fought up north in Yorkshire. Harold Godwinson (or Harold II) had been the victor in the semi-final at Stamford Bridge. And so to Hastings for the final …
August 2014 (Christchurch, Dorset)
I’m ending this blog in the town where I live (Christchurch, Dorset). The Normans certainly left their mark here with both a late 11th century priory (England’s longest parish church today) and an early 12th century castle.
That castle is of trademark Norman motte and bailey design, the motte being the mound on which the keep was plonked, the final defensible part of the castle, and the bailey, the courtyard, where the other outbuildings were constructed. Our bailey had (or has) the Constable’s House, the comfortable accommodation, where presumably John himself stayed. It is known that he was the monarch to visit Christchurch the most times, lording it here on no fewer than ten occasions.
I wanted to drive into the middle of my story here, however, and that takes me to one of the occasions when Christchurch Castle was besieged. Originally a wooden fortress, Christchurch was rebuilt in stone by Baldwin de Redvers to withstand a siege during the so-called ‘Anarchy’ that broke out in the 12th century between King Stephen (the last of the Norman kings) and Matilda (whom many regarded as the rightful queen, and would be the mother of the first Angevin king). The castle was captured in 1147 as the fortunes of civil war ebbed back and forth. The war effectively ended with Stephen’s death (1154) and significantly the comfy Constable’s House was built around 1160 as thoughts turned to a post-war world.
Normans and Angevins. I guess, at Christchurch, gazing up at the ruined keep, I’m taking in a key moment in the family saga. Here the two factions fought over the spoils. The Normans won in the short-term (Stephen kept his throne). The Angevins won in the longer-term (Stephen was followed by Matilda’s son, Henry II). Goodbye Normans; hello Angevins.
* Steve Roberts is a freelance writer and author of Lesser Known Christchurch. He is currently writing Lesser Known Bournemouth. He has had more than 550 articles published in 70 different magazines. He is passionate about British history and thoroughly enjoys visiting the many places around our islands where great events have occurred.
Did your ancestor come over with the Conqueror? Read Steve Roberts' special feature, including a guide to gateway ancestors, in the December 2018 issue of Family Tree, on sale from 23 October 2018 here.
All photographs © Steve Roberts.