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The Normans - An Overview

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Where and When:

The Normans were a people formed in the ninth and tenth centuries by the mingling of the indigenous population east of Brittany and west of Flanders with Viking settlers. In 911 the French King, Charles the Simple, granted these settlers land in the lower Seine area which, over the next century, was transformed into a Duchy called Normandy. Despite adopting concepts like Christianity from their neighbours, they soon developed a culture distinct from both the Vikings and the French. However, the Normans were so good at assimilating that within a few centuries they had blended entirely into other peoples.

The Norman across Europe:

Thanks to a culture which valued adventure and adaptation, and a social structure which created many poor, landless knights, Norman soldiers and mercenaries quickly spread across Europe, fighting for many different nations, albeit often against Islamic forces. The high points of this expansion were the conquests of England, Sicily and Antioch which came under the direct rule of Normans, although they also fought in the reconquest of Spain, the struggle for southern Italy and even for Armenia.

The Normans and England:

The most famous Norman conquest of all was their capture of England. Duke William of Normandy, who would later be known as 'The Conqueror', pressed a claim on the kingdom when Edward the Confessor died in 1066, sailing across the English Channel that same year and beating the other major claimant, King Harold, in battle at Hastings on October 14th 1066. The ruling class of England was then replaced almost entirely by Normans but these again rapidly assimilated. Normans were also active, although on a far smaller scale of achievement, in Scotland and Wales.

The Normans in Italy :

A Norman presence in Italy is first recorded in 1017, when Norman mercenaries - including the sons of Tancred de Hauteville - fought for the Lombards against the Byzantine Emperor. By 1038 Normans had gained land in Aversa near Naples. Their expansion continued in the face of Byzantine attempts to reconquer Italy, and by 1059 Robert Guiscard de Hautville was acknowledged as Duke of Apulia and Richard D’Averso as Lord of Capua. Expansion continued until Normans ruled almost all of Southern Italy.

The Normans in Sicily:

In 1060 Roger, brother of Robert de Hauteville invaded Sicily, having success where the Byzantines had recently failed and having enough of a foothold to declare himself Count of Siciliy by 1161. The whole island was conquered by 1091. In 1127 Count Roger II of took control of Apulia on the Italian mainland and was crowned King of Sicily by the Pope. This remained an independent kingdom until 1194, when it was subsumed into the Hohenstaufen domains.

Characteristics:

  • Adaptive: frequently making use of existing laws and institutions instead of inventing their own new ones; able to travel and settle.
  • Castle Builders: the Norman’s most famous characteristic was their tendency to build castles, especially the motte and bailey type.
  • Cavalry: The Normans produced a relatively large number of knights, especially in comparison to nations like England. They were some of the most effective of the era.
  • Zealous: The Normans didn’t just blindly adopt existing ideas, they streamlined, improved or otherwise practised them to very high levels.

    Notable Normans:

    • Rollo / Hrolf, with whom King Charles the Simple of France made the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte granting the ‘Normans’ land in northern france.
    • William the Conquerer, King of England and Duke of Normandy
    • Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and Calabria
    • Robert II, King of Sicily
    • Bohemund I, Prince of Antioch
    • Tancred, Prince of Galilee
    • William of Montreuil, leader of a papal army.
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