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CONQUEST 16: AN ENGLISHMAN'S HOME Is In The Shadow Of A Norman Lord's Castle

Updated on July 24, 2017

A Norman lord oversees the building of his stronghold - at first in timber. Later it will be rebuilt in stone when he becomes established

Building castles - keeping to a fairly standard pattern, builders were given clearance to level an area of a 'burh' before basic structures (motte and bailey') were established. These castles were originally built of timber, too easily burnt down
Building castles - keeping to a fairly standard pattern, builders were given clearance to level an area of a 'burh' before basic structures (motte and bailey') were established. These castles were originally built of timber, too easily burnt down

Lifestyle changes

Conventions of English society were laid aside with the new Norman elite.

Englishmen who wished to survive and prosper were best advised to conform to the new order. William implanted Frankish customs across his new kingdom and set out to change those of his new underlings. Change was inevitable, but comparisons between pre-Conquest England and Normandy are too easily stressed. However, similarities outweighed differences and eased the transition and some solutions to changes in authority drew their origins from neither society but grew in response to need.

Accounts of daily life were sketchy about the distinguishing customs of the English and their Norman counterparts, and not always clear. Dictates of style and taste were broadly only restricted to the building of castles and places of worship. The English were observed to live life to the full in 'mean and despicable homes whilst the Normans and their allies lived frugally in the grand manner'. Yet although the fabric of the new churches was imposing, the English decorated theirs in unrestrained style compared to the plainness of the new Norman buildings.

Accounts conflict with respect to the way the Angles, Anglo-Danes, Anglo-Norse and Saxons dressed. By and large the Anglo-Danes and Anglo-Norse dressed alike, but there were costume differences owing to origin. Some wrote of the influence of foreign fashions on the English as more colourful. Others say English women excelled in producing garments richly embroidered, as when William and his courtiers attended the Easter Feast at Fecamp. The Franks had never seen the like as William and his followers were attired in fine cloths interwoven with gold thread. They were amazed also at the many gold and silver table vessels, artefacts - as was the finery they wore - from the Confessor's treasury (which did not actually belong to any particular king.but to the state, but William could not be expected to understand, could he?) Both Franks and Normans gaped at the long-maned sons of the northern nobles, 'as beautiful as girls', with hair low over the collar in contrast with the cropped heads of the Franks and Normans. Excessive combing was seen as a Danish characteristic. By combing their hair daily, bathing at least once weekly and changing their clothes often they lured the English ladies from even before Aethelred's time. Longer hair (shoulder-length was average), a trend looked down on by the early Norman incomers was soon adopted from the English by their sons and later arriving fellow countrymen.

However, the initial imposition of a foreign aristocracy on English society complicated matters, with new levels of status defining rank. In pre-Conquest society the status of the thegn was determined chiefly by his relationship to the king. Earls stood at the apex of society below the king, and the median thegns next - subject to the rank of another lord. The title of earl was kept after 1066 for the highest level of society, but their authority was trimmed. Post-Conquest earls lost much of their administrative power to the shire reeves - the sheriffs - who became correspondingly more powerful than their pre-Conquest predecessors. Although earls still bore territorial titles, usually they were confined to a single shire. These titles were a mirror of rank as opposed to function and rapidly became hereditary. Below the rank of earl the standing of thegns lost all trace of previous status and the thegnage was soon assimilated into tenure by sergeantry. For landowners below the rank of earl the continental term baron was introduced. As before 1066 those owing suit to the king were 'barones regis' (just king's thegn written in Latin).

Earls and barons now held their land from the king as fiefs or honours, whereas in Normandy the bulk of their lands were 'alods' (inherited family estates). Alodial land holders owed service, but the land still belonged to the family, not the lord. It was this which distinguished alods from beneficia or fiefs (feuda), lands granted from the lords' estates in return for service. The distinction between alod and beneficium has similarities with those between the book-land and laen-land in this kingdom. Book-land, like patrimonial land was heritable. By the eleventh century any distinction between the two had very likely disappeared. Nevertheless book-land carried with it military service owed, but by providing a contingent of armed men in proportion to land held. The household retinue would have accounted for part of the required numbers of men for a contingent. The lord could endow some of his men with laen-land to support themselves - as was the case with huscarls - held for a fixed term in return for service. The link between laen-land and the Frankish beneficium is plain, although it is the differences between them that draws the modern historian. Both types of tenure owed service, but those due on laen-land have been seen as 'miscellaneous', with military service at most incidental whilst beneficium owes clearly defined military duties. When eleventh century laens are likened with contemporary beneficia the distinction is less obvious. The obligations of beneficia are rarely defined and it is clear some were held for non-military duties. At the time of the Conquest it seems neither the word beneficium nor its follower the feudum/fief had taken on any meaning more specific than that of an estate held in order to provide some form of service. On the other hand the military obligations owed by holders of laen-land have been under-rated. It has been argued that military service was a public obligation on all land, not an obligation owed by the tenant of laen-land to his lord; however the ecidence points to the lord being responsible for the tenant's service and could levy fines on defaulters and - in extreme cases - the land could be confiscated.

This may still fall short of military service owed to the lord rather than to the king, but the distinction was not remarkable in practice. In Norman or Frankish eyes defaulting on service to the lord was tantamount to offending against the king who appointed the lord.

Castle building in the south and east of England

Reconstruction of the later stone fortifications laid down at Castle Acre near Swaffham, Norfolk
Reconstruction of the later stone fortifications laid down at Castle Acre near Swaffham, Norfolk | Source
Detail of buildings within the walls of the outer bailey at Castle Acre after rebuilding in stone
Detail of buildings within the walls of the outer bailey at Castle Acre after rebuilding in stone | Source
Not far away, a swathe of Norwich in East Anglia was cleared to build its castle - in wood - which was later enlarged and then consolidated in stone
Not far away, a swathe of Norwich in East Anglia was cleared to build its castle - in wood - which was later enlarged and then consolidated in stone | Source
Church Norton Mound near Chichester in West Sussex. Little remains within the original moat or defensive ditch
Church Norton Mound near Chichester in West Sussex. Little remains within the original moat or defensive ditch | Source

They came to conquer and eventually built strings of castles across England and Wales. Norman knights were given 'carte blanche' to do what they saw fit, as long as they were obedient to an absolute monarch, their liege lord. They were given parcels of land here, there and everywhere - as long as they couldn't concert their power against him. William I saw to that. He would see from the Demesde (Domesday) Survey who owned what and where.


Fancy living in the shadow of this monstrosity after losing half your neighbours?

Further development of a stone-built castle - all well and good in a siege if the occupants had ample supplies and water, of little or no use against later cannon fire
Further development of a stone-built castle - all well and good in a siege if the occupants had ample supplies and water, of little or no use against later cannon fire

Next - 17: Raking Old Embers

Michael Wood is an eminent historian who has brought out many books concerned with English history. See his take on how Domesday reflected on England and how the land developed from the Normans to the present day. Trace your locality - the survey did not include Durham and Northumberland due to hostility experienced by the clerics who undertook it.

Section of the Domesday survey, each entry represents...

000s of hectares of ploughed land,  every pair of oxen, ploughs, animals that grazed the land or ruminated in the king's forest; mills and fish ponds - it wasn't just the sheep that were fleeced, although an ulterior motive was given for the survey!
000s of hectares of ploughed land, every pair of oxen, ploughs, animals that grazed the land or ruminated in the king's forest; mills and fish ponds - it wasn't just the sheep that were fleeced, although an ulterior motive was given for the survey!

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