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Apr 15, 2020

How the Norman Conquest Underpinned American Independence

In the wake of the Norman Conquest of England, new institutions arose that would lay the foundations for English, and eventually American, self-government.

History is not a series of unrelated events, nor do those events happen in a vacuum. Understanding the past shows us the road we have travelled as a culture, or a society, or even a country. If that is the case, then it’s safe to say that United States history did not start in 1776 with the American Revolution, or in 1607 with the founding of the Virginia colony. The building blocks of what would become the first truly democratic republic were laid long before the Europeans even knew there was another continent across the Atlantic. Much of that foundation can be found throughout English history, and one of the most important of building blocks was the Norman Invasion of England.

Why the Normans?

Our story begins with the death of Edward the Confessor at the beginning of the year 1066. His health began to decline the previous fall, and, only a few days into 1066 he was lying on his deathbed. Around him were gathered the queen, her brother Harold Godwinson, who was the most powerful earl in the kingdom and Edward’s right hand, and several members of the witenagemot, which was a council of the nobles of the realm who advised the king. As he lay dying, knowing the end was near, Edward turned to Harold and placed the care of the queen and of the kingdom in Harold’s hands. The members of the witenagemot, hearing this, quickly confirm Harold as the next king, and he is crowned on the same day as Edward’s burial.1

Harold was a logical choice for the witenagemot. As mentioned, he was the most powerful earl in England, administering the largest and most important earldom in the kingdom, primary advisor to the king, and most trusted military leader. He also came from a strong family. Harold’s father, Godwin, had also been the most powerful earl, and Harold’s sister was married to Edward. He seemed to represent stability and continuity, having been such an integral part of Edward’s reign for so long. The fact that he was an Anglo-Saxon also connected him to the kingdom’s historical rulers in a way that other claimants on the throne weren’t.2

None of that really meant anything to William, Duke of Normandy, who believed he had a strong claim on the throne. Edward had grown up an exile in Normandy, his mother’s home, while England was ruled by the powerful Scandinavian king Canute. William visited his cousin Edward in 1051, during a time when Godwin and his sons had been temporarily banished from the kingdom.3 William claimed Edward had promised the kingdom to him during that visit and that Harold had confirmed that inheritance himself to William during a brief stay in Normandy, a scene depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.4 Although Edward may have made that offer, the crown was not strictly his to give. Anglo-Saxon custom dictated that the king nominated an heir and that nomination was then confirmed by the witenagemot, and that confirmation had come to Harold, not William.5

In the end, it little mattered whose claim to the throne was superior. William invaded England, landing near Hastings in September of 1066. The Normans defeated Harold and his army at Senlac Hill and began their March on London. London surrendered in December, and William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066. From that moment on, the English began learning to govern themselves.

Absentee King

William’s victory in England would set up an extremely challenging situation, and he certainly knew better than to expect that Normandy was going to play along. The Normans were not going to be any easier to govern from England than they were when William was in Normandy.

William became Duke as a young boy when his father named him heir and left on a crusade from which he would not return. William spent his childhood in hiding as the duchy descended into anarchy. He only succeeded in conquering his own duchy with the aid of the French king and even then, he spent most of the following years continuing to fight to maintain control or to expand it.6 With this history it should not come as a surprise that even as the king in England, he would still spend a considerable amount of time in Normandy fighting to maintain control. In fact, he was engaged in that exact activity in Normandy when he died.7

William’s death brought his third son, William Rufus, to the throne of England. Normandy went to the eldest, Robert. The second oldest, Richard, had died as a teenager. With William Rufus on the throne, some of the Norman nobility in England wanted to unify the two territories under Robert. The attempt was defeated when Robert failed to come to England to support those nobles. William Rufus then gained control of Normandy when Robert offered it to him for the sum of ten thousand pounds so he could go on a crusade. Like his father before him, William Rufus would spend a significant portion of his reign trying to maintain and expand his French territories.8

This would become a recurring pattern, no matter who was sitting on the throne. Henry I, youngest son of William I, gained control of England when William Rufus died in a hunting accident in the year 1100. Robert, deciding that he, as the eldest, should have the entire inheritance from their father, invaded England but was defeated and driven back to Normandy. Rather than sit and enjoy his victory, Henry invaded Normandy in 1105 and was busy fighting there for at least a year before he gained a final victory over Robert. Within the next decade he would be found at war in Normandy again. The French King, Louis VI, and his father, Philip I, had been consistent antagonists for the Norman kings. William and his sons had each held the duchy of Normandy as a vassal of the French king, but after William had expanded his lands and power both in France and over England, he and his sons were seen as major threats to the French kings. Louis, with the help of Baldwin VII of Flanders and Fulk V of Anjou supported a rebellion against Henry in 1116 which only ended with Henry’s victory at Brémule in 1119.9

Henry I’s death was followed by the Anarchy, a twenty-year civil war between his daughter Matilda and his nephew Stephen of Blois. Stephen was ultimately successful in the war, but when his son died, he made an arrangement that brought an end to the war by naming Matilda’s son Henry as his heir.10 The end of the civil war was not an automatic peace however, as Henry II found it necessary to enforce his rule on the kingdom. The Anarchy also meant that Henry II would have to reconquer his French territories, and he would spend more than half of his reign in France.11

The story of Richard I is extremely familiar, as highly fictionalized versions of it are told in films every few years. While those films are largely inaccurate, they are correct that Richard left his kingdom in the hands of his brother John while he went off on Crusade to the Holy Land. John was an effective administrator—he successfully used the machinery of the English government to collect enough money to ransom Richard when he was captured on his way home from the crusade—but he was not a good military leader. While Richard was gone Normandy slipped out from under the control of the throne. Upon finally returning home from the crusade, Richard, like his predecessors, spent considerable time in France, in this case fighting restore his power over his territory and, like his great-great-grandfather, William I, Richard would die while fighting in Normandy.12

It was only in the reign of John I, once again taking the throne because his brother had no heirs, when this pattern of kings being absent in Normandy came to an end. John failed to defend all his French territories and, after failing to retake them once lost, became the first king since Harold to live in England permanently.13

Self-Government

Several innovations were necessary for the English to learn self-government, although, in some ways the Anglo-Saxons were already predisposed toward it. During Anglo-Saxon days, for example, all freemen were part of a “hundred.” The hundred, possibly named for its ability to provide one hundred fighters for the king’s army, was a form of local government, roughly analogous to today’s county, where a court, policing system and tax structure were organized. The members of a hundred were responsible for providing for each other’s safety, apprehending criminals and making sure that its members appeared in court when accused of a crime. The hundred was divided into smaller groupings, called “tithings,” to make local policing a little easier.14

The system worked well under the Anglo-Saxon kings, but less so under the Normans, as after the Conquest, the people were not as well disposed to obey their king. William found it necessary to institute a stronger system that would provide the same function as the old hundred, and reduce lawlessness. The Normans developed the Frankpledge, which was similar to, but more structured than, the tithing. Under the Frankpledge, all men over the age of twelve were placed in a frankpledge group and swore allegiance to the crown. That group would provide a guarantee that any of its members would appear in court when required; if a delinquent member did not appear the entire group would be punished. The group was also responsible for pursuing and capturing criminals. Finally, the group had certain court duties, such as providing evidence and paying of court fines. Under the Normans, the Frankpledge was a compulsory obligation of all members of society except the aristocracy, clerics, women, and those who were not free, such as servants.15 This system allowed for local areas to responsibly keep the king’s peace, even if there were no royal officers present.

William I also introduced another innovation: the Frankish Inquest. Dating back to Roman times, and used under the reign of Charlemagne, the inquest was a reliable way for the king to extend his authority beyond his presence. The king sent out representatives, who were empowered to compel testimony from any, and all, who were summoned. William used this inquest in 1085, when he sent representatives throughout the kingdom to compile a complete record of property, property value, and taxation. The record compiled from this inquest, Domesday Book, besides being a valuable resource for today’s historians, was instrumental in helping William, and those who governed in his absence, understand his kingdom more thoroughly.16 The inquest worked extremely efficiently when combined with the hundred and the frankpledge.

Along with the Frankpledge and the Frankish Inquest, William brought feudalism with him from Normandy. Unlike manorialism, feudalism was a system that primarily defined the relationship between a lord and his vassals. Under feudalism the king and his vassals made oaths with each other that encompassed both civic responsibility and military duty. Feudalism led to stronger royal power, political unity and societal cohesion.17 Under this feudal system the manors gained more power as local centers of royal power. They began to draw local institutions to them, such as hundreds and shire courts. They became centers of justice, and as royal courts expanded into these jurisdictions the feudal system gave them a strong local center.18

Lastly, after the Norman conquest we see the development of two new offices to make administration of the government more stable. These offices are the chief justiciar and the chancellor. The chief justiciar was a kind of forebear to today’s prime minister, a person who carried out the king’s demands when he was present and administered the government in the king’s name when he was absent. The chancellor was responsible for keeping records, particularly financial records.19

Angevin Improvements

The Angevin kings, Henry II, Richard I, and John I made improvements to these Norman innovations to make them more efficient as the kingdom grew in both population and wealth.

Building on the strength of the royal feudal courts and the precedent of William’s Frankish inquest, Henry II sent itinerant justices throughout the kingdom to spread royal justice further. His purpose in doing this was to expand the royal justice, thus supplementing the streams of royal revenue with the fines and fees collected at court. Even if his original intent was primarily greed, Henry’s itinerant justices had the added benefit to the people of making royal justice more accessible throughout the realm. This would continue until Magna Carta established the principle of having stable courts with permanent locations so everyone would always know where to go to find justice for any wrong. It also allowed the feudal courts to take on more royal court duties, freeing up the curia regis, the king’s superior court, to handle more complex cases.20

The growth of royal justice accompanied growth in the royal revenue, and the Angevin kings were each skilled at finding new ways to increase that revenue. They increased the amount of land designated as king’s forest, which placed all justice within those lands in the royal courts. They expanded the list of offenses that would be heard in the royal courts as well. Besides the court revenues, they increased their income in other ways too. When a lord died, the king might hold onto his estate, forcing the heir to pay a fee to receive his inheritance. The Angevin kings married off widows for profit as well. This was how John was able to raise the money for Richard’s ransom so efficiently. These revenue increases meant that the king needed better aid to keep track of it all. During this period the role of the chancellor grew until the chancellery was replaced by a professional staff whose job was to take care of the royal finances. This was the birth of the exchequer.21

Long Term Effects

While one could describe the Norman Invasion in 1066 as a major upheaval for the English kingdom, the changes in its wake would have long lasting effects. The Norman Invasion had expanded royal power and extended royal justice throughout the country. At the same time as increasing this power and justice, the century and a half after the invasion saw the administration of the royal government become more stable, efficient, and professional. It also created the precedents that the English people would come to view as their birthright as Englishmen.

The English became so accustomed to taking care of their own government that they took great offense when John abused that power and revolted against him in 1215, leading to the issuing of Magna Carta. That great document can be seen in part as guaranteeing some of the aforementioned important Norman-English birthrights. When the barons forced John to issue Magna Carta they were seeking a return to good government, less arbitrary justice, and even a right of the barons to approve requests for additional funding for the crown. Above all, Magna Carta established the idea that the barons could place limits on the monarch’s power.

Four centuries later, when the Stuart kings attempted to establish a more absolute monarchy, the English protected their right of self-government under the authority of the king by rebelling against them. They did this twice, once establishing the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, and again in 1688 when Parliament overthrew the Stuarts and replaced them with William of Orange. Much of the groundwork for these major events was laid during the absentee reigns of the Norman and Angevin kings after the Norman Invasion.

For the great thinkers of the American Revolution, this was their intellectual and historical foundation. Magna Carta and Parliament’s victory over the Stuarts showed them that not only could they place limits on the government, but that they had the right to run that government themselves. In doing so, they were building on a long tradition of the English taking care of themselves—a tradition that developed because William was determined to inherit the English throne. It was, after all, William’s efforts to effectively govern his kingdom that started it all.


  1. Howarth, David. 1066: the Year of the Conquest. (New York: Viking Press, 1977) 50.
  2. Butler, Denis. 1066: the Story of a Year (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966) 28.
  3. The story of how Godwin and his sons came to be banished is too long to be told here. Godwin had dominated the reign of Edward before launching a rebellion that was very unpopular due to the nature of the offense by his son Sweyn that started the affair. During the banishment, Edward was much freer to fall back on his Norman upbringing. Lloyd, Alan. The Making of the King: 1066 (New York: Holt, Rhinehard and Winston, 1966) 36-51.
  4. Bridgeford, Andrew. 1066: the Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry (New York: Walker & Co, 2005) 90.
  5. Howarth, 28.
  6. Douglas, David C. William the Conqueror: the Norman Impact upon England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964) 37-69.
  7. Brown, R. Allen. The Normans and the Norman Conquest (Dover NH: Boydell Press, 1985) 172.
  8. Lyon, Bryce. Constitutional and Legal History of Medieval England (Pearson Education, 1960) 120.
  9. Lyon, 121-122.
  10. Lyon, 124-126.
  11. Jones, Dan. 23.
  12. Jones, 27.
  13. Jones, 35.
  14. Lyon, 67-68.
  15. Lyon 195-196.
  16. Lyon 183.
  17. Brown, 187.
  18. Lyon, 193.
  19. Brown, 212.
  20. Lyon, 280-285.
  21. Lyon, 257.