Norman Britain

English and Norman society and Feudal England

The Normans and the Anglo-Saxons were each Scandinavian immigrants who had settled in another land and taken over from its ruling aristocracy. For both societies, land was the defining currency. The Lord owned land, which he parcelled out amongst his followers in return for service. They in turn settled the land as minor lords in their own right, surrounded by a retinue of warriors to whom they would grant gifts as rewards for good service and as tokens of their own good lordship (of which the greatest gift was land). Success in war generated more land and booty which could be passed around. If a lord wasn't successful or generous enough, his followers would desert him for a 'better' lord. It was a self-perpetuating dynamic fuelled by expansion and warfare in which the value of a man was determined by his warlike ability: the lord led warriors; the warrior fought for his lord; they were both serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers who owed their livelihoods to the lord; and below them came the unfree slaves. It was after the Conquest, and in particular during the 12th Century, that the full system of feudal obligations developed. Latin became the official language of government.

The Normans had an enormous influence on architectural development in Britain. There had been large-scale fortified settlements, known as burghs, and also fortified houses in Anglo-Saxon England, but the castle was a Norman import. Some were towers on mounds surrounded by larger enclosures, often referred to as 'motte and bailey castles'. Others were immense, most notably the huge palace-castles William I built at Colchester and London. A lord might display his wealth, power and devotion through a combination of castle and church in close proximity.

Churches were also built in great numbers, and in great variety, although usually in the Romanesque style with its characteristic round-topped arches. The vast cathedrals of the late 11th and early 12th centuries, colossal in scale by European standards, emphasised the power of the Normans as well as their reform of the church in the conquered realm.