Gens Normannorum: What is Norman Identity?

In 1829 Sir Walter Scott delighted his readers with Ivanhoe. The novel for sure was a product of the romantic nationalistic movement that most of Europe was embracing but, possibly without meaning to do so, he also depicted the landscape of England after 1066, and its occupants. The image he provides about the Norman invaders is one of their military and political power, that of those French tyrants ruling over the Saxons with no wish to mix with the native population. This description usually comes to mind when thinking about the Normans and who they were. But the myths create confusion in the understanding of their identity. Perhaps we require some clarification of terminology first of all. Starting with the term ‘Norman’-  this is the modern concept that derives from old French and Latin words like Nordmanni or Normanni, which means men from the north. These would have been used by the Franks and their contemporaries, and not the Normans themselves. Then you will be thinking: what actually is the Gens Normannorum? The word ‘gens’ in Latin can refer to an extended group of people with particular characteristics. As per G.A.Loud definition, “a nation would be made up of several ‘gentes’, usually related to each other, but none the less separate and distinct”, which is precisely the concept around which the Normans build their realm. The Normans were a faction that survived by means of political union, adaptation and strong territorial bonds. Therefore, recognising a Norman identity per se is a difficult task.

Despite the fact that the Normans were a wonderful collage of different people, it is true that they are usually associated with certain features. Some of these were an invention of their own, but some others were the perceptions of their contemporaries, being the most prominent their so feared military skills. Not only Walter Scott portrayed these people as powerful warriors, so did the Greeks when they saw them conquering their lands in the Mediterranean. The same sentiment was shared by multiple Popes. It seems likely that the feudal system they started to follow from their settlement in Normandy provided a good military service in which the aristocracy got involved quite eagerly, turning to be more efficient than anywhere else in Europe. So maybe this was the genesis of this Norman ideal. Living in such a militarised society, discipline and cooperation evolved quickly, which made possible having a single ruler to lead these diverse people. This ruler would the seek support within his lineage, which becomes another important issue in Norman identity: family. William the Conqueror serves us – funny that – as a perfect example here. Just look at his retinue for the conquest in England: half brothers like Odo of Bayeux, cousins and other distant relatives. It was this power and unity, linked with their adaptable Scandinavian mind which allowed them to create great institutions, like their new bodies of law and government.

Moreover, these pretensions took also a tangible form which is very characteristic of the Normans: castles. These could serve as residences, fortresses and symbols of authority. The typical Norman castle would have been the motte and bailey construction, although it is known that in the southern Norman territories they recycled pre-existing Muslim castles that were more elegant and rather appealing to their ‘greedy’ minds. Therefore, castles seem to represent everything the Normans were; a bellicose race with hunger for new lands. But that was not just the point, though, was it? It happened that the Normans were quite good and efficient architects that helped to develop a whole new architectural style: the Romanesque. Furthermore, we have the issue of monastic revival and all that religious work the Normans did…Let’s not forget that their conversion only happened in the 10th century. Just like the Carolingians did before, they promoted Christianity through learning and pious charity, and they embraced their new religion as a vital part of their lives. Many religious buildings were built with the money and patronage of the different noble families, in order to provide for their souls but also to improve their status, and to portray themselves as Norman pious rulers. So, it seems that not only were these Northmen warriors, but people with cultural sensibility and religious devotion. How did they end up being related to such different concepts, and why is the first one the prevailing one?

Sadly, those to blame are the Norman historians from the 11th century, as they built up the Gens Normannorum around the idea of their military prowess. It is likely that the intention was to portray them as tough survivors, particularly considering their Viking origin. Consider that, what Rollo and his companions managed to do by 911 was, in medieval terms, extraordinary and epic. They found themselves a new context in a land whose ancestors had ‘terrorized’ for decades. They managed to grasp power and survive, of which they were obviously be proud, as Dudo of St.Quentin reflects in his text History of the Dukes of the Normans. According to him, the Normans were descendants of the Dacians; the heirs of Antenor, who was known to be a Trojan survivor. Not only was he giving them a legitimate legacy to rule over their new lands by linking them with an ancient culture, he was establishing a bond between them and the Trojans who were warriors and survivors, just like the Vikings. Even more, he was establishing a parallelism: the Aeneid gives the Romans a Trojan background and origin, the same than Dudo is doing to the Normans…What else could the new European power desire that being equal to the Roman Empire? This was all a matter of legitimacy. The Normans were lovers of history; heroic history. And so this historical snowball got bigger and other authors came and  reinforced the ideal. Then with William the Bastard, they just elevated their might to holy standards. His chaplain, William of Poitiers, describes his great religiousness while participating in mass before battle. Furthermore, he is praised and elevated to the level of Christian icons such as David and Salomon, even Jesus or God as “he heals where he wounds…peace and war obey him sympathetically”, like it is stated in the poem Jephthah. So not only the Normans were now warriors: they were crusaders.

And so, from the 12th century onwards the crusader image begun. Figures like Tancred, who managed to get control of the Principality of Antioch that brought more glory to the Southern Normans. But then, there is a sudden twist. The issue of the 12th Century for the Normans and their identity is a problem of generational change.  They had now spent several decades in Normandy, but also in the Mediterranean and England. In England, they tried to suppress the ‘English’ traditions, but it was impossible, as the Saxon customs had been there for a longer period. The Normans assumed an ‘English’ past at the same time that the Norman myth got introduced within the Saxon population; now both the ‘gentes’ Normannnorum and Anglorum were not easy to separate. In addition, there were family crisis shaking the Norman rule: Henry against Robert, then Matilda and Stephen, and even in the South William I had trouble with the Sicilian aristocracy. There are even evidences of decline in Norman art: the further they expanded, the weaker the influence of Romanesque was. In addition, their military prestige disappeared as the age of Conquest came to an end…and considering that in Southern Italy and Sicily they had to deal with the Islamic and Orthodox population, one can even doubt their religious unity.

So, what was in truth Norman identity? It was everything and anything at the same time. It is clear, though, that as Marjorie Chibnall puts it “the Norman people were product, not of blood, but of history”. One could argue that, the only true Normans were those that lived in Normandy – centuries later they would promote their independence. Perhaps, Norman identity was nothing more than a Viking wish of adventure and expansion with a French touch of creativity and piety more appealing to their neighbours, therefore making it easier for them to fulfill their objective. Others might blame the imagery on the 11th Century chronicles that promulgated the Norman pragmatism and opportunism to satisfy their lords and their own minds. Maybe this is hypocritical, and just a pure modernist judgement, from which scholars should try to learn and focus on what the Normans thought of themselves and why. There is still much to consider and revise about the subject. Until then, I am happy to keep in mind, and N.Webber advises that Norman “identity evolved in these years, through changes of patria, of language, of enemy and of religion…’Norman’ was used in Normandy, in England, and in Italy and Sicily, to do so was to assert different claims in different areas, and in different times”.

-Chibnall, M., The Normans (Oxford, 2000)

-Davis, R.H.C., The Normans and Their Myth (London, 1976)

-Dudo of Saint-Quentin, ‘History of the Dukes of the Normans’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

Haskins, C.H., The Normans in European History (New York, 1959)

-Fulcouis of Beauvais, ‘Jephthah Poem’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

-Kennedy, H., Crusader Castles (Cambridge, 1994)

-Loud, G.A., ‘The Gens Normannorum- Myth or Reality?’, Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol. IV, (Woodbridge, 1982), pp. 104-116

-Potts, C., ‘Atque unum ex diversis gentibus populum effecit: Historical Tradition and the Norman Identity’, Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol. XVIII, (Woodbridge, 1996), pp. 139-152

-Searle, E., Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power 840-1066 (Berkeley and London, 1988)

-Ville de Caen, ‘Les Normands, peuple d’Europe’, accessed 20th May 2011,

-Webber, N., The Evolution of Norman Identity (Woodbridge, 2005)

-William of Poitiers, ‘Deeds of Duke William’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

The Creation of the Anglo-Norman Church

Carrying on with my talks on church reform, we will have a quick look at the case of the Anglo-Norman church following the conquest of 1066. Pre-conquest England had a relatively coherent religious agenda and structure, founded on the Regularis Concordia and an active cult of saints. The Anglo-Saxon monasteries were prosperous thanks to the ritual donations of their patrons and the wealth obtained from their different economic exploitations. One cannot help but wonder if there was a real need to transform a well-established religious system. Leaving aside William’s personal interests and political agenda, it could be argued that the English Church was rather static and conservative.

Let’s take a look at the stance the Conqueror took regarding Papal control over the English Church. It was William I’s intention to keep the English Church development under the guidelines provided by Rome, but at the same time he took measures to avoid papal intrusion in the affairs of the state. The effort of the pontiffs to get English high-ranking clergymen to travel to Rome and do homage to the Pope only made the situation degrade. This is reflected in the events that took place in autumn of 1079 with the announcement of the forthcoming Lenten synod when William refused to allow any of his clergy to go to the synod. On top of that it was decreed that any legate sent by the Pope would only be admitted as a diplomatic envoy and not as someone with an interest towards the affairs of the English Church. It was only thanks to Anselm, during the reign of William Rufus, that the barrier between the papacy and England was partially broken, but to the eyes of Rome, England was like the prodigal son.

Perhaps some of the most noticeable changes in this re-structure involved the liturgical discourse, which required a changed in religious architecture and processional space. The most significant elements that configured the new buildings were the twin tower façade without a porch or narthex, the lantern tower, the three-bay presbytery, the apse-echelon plan of five chapels and the three-story elevation with full tribune. Moreover, metropolitan offices such as Canterbury added the use of a crypt to host the relics of their patron saints. Furthermore, there was a redistribution of the different altars and their function regarding the processional route that the lay community would take within the church. These customs were adopted by many churches, but not all. A clear example is Winchester, which carried on the traditions imposed by the Regularis Concordia, incorporating odd elements within its architecture. The most relevant is the west end that most likely represents the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon customs of crown-wearing rituals.

Nevertheless, the most significant changes that the English Church underwent in the post-Conquest era are those related with monastic foundations. The Norman settlers invested a great deal of their fortunes in these religious houses. There were several reasons that encouraged the lay population to invest in such foundations such as the protection for the benefactors’ soul, the display of power and wealth, and in many cases profitable land revenues. New monastic houses were introduced in England between 1066 and 1086, although admittedly most of them were of Norman origin. This process carried out during the reign of William II who commissioned some of the important ‘alien’ houses of the island: Binham (1093), Norwich cathedral priory (1096) and Wymondham (1107). Due to the arrival of these institutions two new types of foundations were created; daughter houses, which were directly dependent of their mother house in the continent, and monastic cells that acted as centres of administration for these English properties. Of course, the old  foundations were still used – or re-purposed in some cases. This is the case of the cell of Bec at Clare, Suffolk, that Gilbert of Tanbridge re-founded around 1090. The foundation of new nunneries after the conquest is somehow obscure – it seems that some monastic orders did not want to be associated with the female communities…Nonetheless, new women houses were founded, although the reasons and circumstances about their establishment might differ from those of the monasteries. For instance, Elstow was established by Countess Judith (1076-86), as she became the widow of Earl Waltheof, who was executed due to treachery, therefore buying herself a way to survive in the new regime. In addition, it seems that men of lower social and political status with not enough money to found a monastery, set up nunneries instead, especially in the northern areas of the country. Some old nunneries continued under Norman patronage.  The appointment of abbesses like Cecily who run the house from 1107, and was the daughter of Robert fitz Hamon and sister-in-law of the Earl of Gloucester, is an example of this continuity.

However, it is clear that despite all these changes there was a degree of continuity of the Anglo-Saxon traditions incorporated within the Norman rule. This is most clearly shown by the revitalising of old religious houses, like Gloucester Abbey. Such a place was important for the Normans; its location provided easy access to the problematic Welsh marches. Besides, it was a nodal point for communication, a profitable town and a good site for hunting. Maintaining and advancing its Anglo-Saxons roots was, therefore, crucial and so many investments were done in the abbey and other local churches, especially during the reign of William Rufus. Another example of continuity is the cult of saints. Despite it has been actively argued that the Normans erased all the native saints from their calendar and replaced their relics for others of their taste, recent studies demonstrate that the previous statement is wrong. Even Lanfranc shows a personal devotion to an Anglo-Saxon saint, St.Dustan, whose relics were moved with the majority of the other holy remains to his newly reformed Christ Church cathedral. Most importantly the fact that despite all the efforts to try to distinguish the secular from the regular clergy, the Normans adopted and carried on the old tradition of monastic cathedrals, unique of Anglo-Saxon England is significant.

Therefore, in order to understand the nature of the Anglo-Norman church and the developments of the English church for years, and even centuries to come, it is crucial we recognise the importance of the previous Anglo-Saxon traditions, as well as the political context in which the Normans had to liaise the control over liturgy and practice.

Up to 1066 – The Early Life of the Conqueror

In c.1028 a key player in one of the biggest historical upheavals in English history was born to an unmarried French woman. Herleva was a member of the ducal household of Normandy in the lower ranks of society, potentially the daughter of a tanner, but had been a short-standing mistress to the Robert I who was the debated successor to the Dukedom. Circumstances within Normandy meant that the authority of the noblemen were in flux due to wars with the church. There was also intense rivalry from their neighbours in Brittany who was hoping to expand into Norman land. With the death of Robert I in 1035 and no legitimate heirs to follow, the ducal crown was left to his eldest illegitimate son, the boy who would become the infamous Conqueror of England. Illegitimate succession was not unusual in Normandy, as the custom of male primogeniture that the church would eventually advocate by the twelfth-century, was not common law amongst the people on the continent. It is therefore unclear whether a legitimate son would supplant the eight year old child if one had occurred from a proposed marriage of Robert with a daughter of Cnut of England.

There is no full record of the Dukes childhood which means that his education and upbringing can only be guessed at. He was born in the centuries following the Carolingian Renaissance suggesting the upsurge in classical writing and texts meant he was given an education befitting his status as a high-profile Duke. Whether a legitimate son was expected hung the balance of the importance of the education of an illegitimate child. Since none occurred with no obvious inclination to marry by Robert I it could be guessed that William of Normandy was raised as an heir should. This would include academia such as mathematics and literacy but also chivalric education such as jousting, hunting, hawking, dancing and music were necessary to produce an influential and vibrant courtly lifestyle. Due to being known for administrative and diplomatic skills in later life, it is clear that the young Duke was given a first-hand account on how to keep people on his side. In his minority this was not successful since his supporters were often turn-coats. But in later life with the solidification of his rule in England, skills at appeasement were necessary. His training in government would have been similar to previous Dukes of Normandy with the primary base being within the ducal household itself. As a king of England he was celebrated to be pious which was emulated with his personal relations with the ecclesiastical courts in Normandy, but this was often eclipsed with the reports of greed and cruelty that may have been effects from his childhood in his need to maintain control of his lands, but that is clearly a personal psychological analysis that can never be confirmed.

William had a large amount of support during his minority including his maternal family and much of the Norman nobleman. His right to inherit was contested by several high-ranking men from all corners but he achieved the support of Henry I whose was the King of France and an archbishop. This support solidified his right during his minority but the death of the Archbishop in 1037 meant the help of the church was lost, and Normandy descended into chaos. The troubles lasted for ten years with each man fighting to have control of the young Dukes court and government. Custody of the Duke was fought over brutally with many losing their lives in suspicious circumstances meaning William of Normandy spent periods in hiding with his maternal family as protection. One of the main issues for strife was that, like many kingdoms in the period, internal feuds and wars were fought between nobleman to the detriment of the lower ranking people trapped within the system of feudalism. However most of the viscounts and ecclesiastical courts in Normandy supported the young Duke meaning his minority ended with the ducal crown in his keeping. Successive civil wars, rebellions and uprisings meant that the Dukes education consisted of surviving and learning from a young age to fight. This could be presumed to be why his invasion of England would eventually be a success. By the age of twenty-two William of Normandy was besieging castles with relative ease from Burgundy, Anjou and Maine in order to consolidate power and create a power base at Rouen. Up until the year of 1066 when England fell to the bastard of Normandy peace was never settled, even a marriage to Matilda, the daughter of the Count of Flanders, failed to ensure that William left Normandy in a settled state. The marriage was a success with the arrival of four sons and several daughters but naturally in the most typical medieval sense, the descendants of these children caused the chaos that ensued in England and the continent for several centuries after the infamous year of 1066.

William the Conqueror’s England and its relations with the Papacy

In this blog update I am going to talk about William the Conqueror and his relation with the Papacy concerning the Post-Conquest English church. As everyone knows William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings leaving the kingdom under Norman rule. This famous period in English history has often been remembered solely because of the landmark battle but not so much in regards to what came after, particularly the religious aspects.  Therefore I aim to look at the approaches by both the Papacy and the Normans to reach an agreement over how the church will be controlled.

The Papacy had begun a series of reforms to the European churches under its influence in the eleventh century and the Pope wanted to bring these reforms into the newly conquered English kingdom with the support of King William. These reforms were concerned with morality and practice within the church and from the 1040s onwards there were attempts to suppress the customs that many of the higher clergy thought unfit for their flock. Therefore in the eyes of the Papacy the English church was in need of reform. As it would soon be seen in England, William was not against removing church figures from their posts if needed; in the mid-1050s William deposed his uncle Malgar as Archbishop of Rouen and Primate of Normandy for simony.

Upon entering the English kingdom, both William and a group of papal legates removed another individual from office due to his corruption; the Archbishop of Canterbury Stigand. Stigand faced three charges when the papal legates arrived in 1070 to crown William king and bring England back into the influence of the Roman church. At the Winchester Council he was charged with; continuing to hold the see of Winchester whilst being Archbishop of Canterbury, taking the archbishopric whilst Robert of Jumiege was still alive and using in mass the pallium (a woollen cloak bestowed by the Pope to those with jurisdiction over bishoprics and archbishoprics) that belonged to Jumiege. With Stigand deposed, the church could be reformed alongside the standards of the Continent.

Clerical marriage was also a problem for the Papacy when renewing their influence over the English churches. However at the Council at Winchester in 1076 the new Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc shrewdly avoided a general condemnation of the practice and contended himself with legislation to make clerical marriages impossible in the future. Therefore the Conqueror and the Papacy indeed followed some of the same policies towards the English church when it would suit both sides. Reforming the English church gave the Normans a further degree of legitimacy in their conquest whilst the Papacy reformed its link with England.

However there were also some occasions when the relations between the Conqueror and the Papacy were strained. To secure further ties between the Papacy and William, the Pope in 1080 asked for fealty from the England and the continuation of Peter’s Pence. However William response, that he will not pay fealty to Rome, shows the limits of papal authority. Though William agrees to pay the Peter’s Pence, England is being brought into a conflict between two Popes in Europe; the debate between the Pope and the anti-Pope had begun with the pope in Rome calling for English support. Both William and Lanfranc stay neutral and refuse to get involved with William ordering that no pope should be recognised and that no papal letters should be received in England.

With the papal crisis continuing in Europe, papal influence in England was stalled and the Norman kings were able to regain some of their lost influence over the church. This end the part that the papacy plays in the reign of William the Conqueror and during the reigns of his sons, the papacy and the kings of England do clash again. I hope this blog update has given you an insight into the Post-Conquest English church and how the Papacy used its influence to reform the religious structure.


G, Slocombe., William the Conqueror (1959)

E, Van-Houts and  C, Harper-Bill, (ed.) A companion to the Anglo-Norman world (2003)

B, Golding., Conquest and Colonisation, the Normans in Britain: 1066-1100 (1994)