If you had lived in England on this day (16 October) 950 years ago chances are you would be aware that a momentous battle had just been fought, only a few days earlier, near Hastings in Sussex. Even if you didn’t know the exact details you would undoubtedly know that the English king, Harold Godwinson, had been slain. How would this affect you? To begin with, probably not a lot. But the victor of the battle, Duke William II of Normandy, later to be known as William the Conqueror and later King William I, would fundamentally change what it was to be ‘English’ during his twenty-year reign. Even today the result of these radical changes are still in evidence but have become so familiar to us that they form part of our national identity.
Raiders and pirates
The Normans were descended from the Norse (Norseman became Northman or Norman) who were raiders and pirates from the Scandinavian and Nordic regions. They settled in the region of France that became known as Normandy, establishing a powerful dynasty that included William the Conqueror. Prior to the Norman Conquest, if you were a man you might possibly have had a name such as Eadwine, Æthelred, or Gyrth, or if you were a woman, Ælfgifu, Ealdgyth or Cyneburh. Afterwards Anglo-Saxon names became synonymous with defeat and so children were given Norman names, such as William, Robert, and Henry or Alice, Sophie and Margaret, to better assimilate them into society. These names seem so familiar to us now and, somehow, more English. From the time of the Conquest Norman-French began to influence the English language, customs and culture in a way that has stayed with us ever since.
William I also imported his passion for hunting, for which he created the Nova Foresta in 1079. To protect the beasts of the chase and their habitat, he introduced Forest Law and with it an administrative and legal system that can still be witnessed in the New Forest today, in the form of the Verderers’ Court at Lyndhurst. ‘Verderer’ is derived from the French word for ‘green’ and signifies the area of responsibility for these powerful Forest officials. The first mention in written record of the New Forest occurs in the Domesday Book (Great Survey), to which a whole section is devoted. No other area of the country has this privilege. The Domesday Book is our oldest public record, which was commissioned by William I to inform him of his fiscal dues and the taxes he could expect to receive from around the country. The Domesday Book remains an effective legal proof of land ownership.
The Queen Wills It
Even today Norman-French is used during the passage of Government Acts through the Houses of Parliament with phrases such as, “La Reyne le vault” (The Queen wills it.). This is because William I, and his royal descendants, bestowed and upheld the basis of English law and the institutions that eventually developed into Parliament. Richard the Lionheart, whose statue is outside the Houses of Parliament as a patriotic symbol of our nation’s virtue and virility, is the great-great-grandson of William I and didn’t even speak a word of English. His brother, John, is regarded as the worst king of England but through his negligence and mismanagement Magna Carta Libertatum – better known as Magna Carta – was born. For the first time in history an English monarch agreed in writing to safeguard the rights, privileges and liberties of certain of his subjects, such as clergymen and nobles. This legal document has inspired other forms of contract between rulers and citizenry, such as the United States Constitution, and has consequently made British law the envy of the world.