Monday, April 30, 2007

13: The Normans

Contrary to what one might expect, few if any of the Normans were actually called Norman. Although if you think a bit further it's not so surprising, since they came from France and Norman doesn't sound like a French name. It sounds like the name of a geography teacher or a civil servant (no disrespect to either). Frenchmen have names like Francois or Gilles, or something else that somehow suggests a slightly slimy seductive quality despite having tonsils that taste of snails - though if you've discovered that Gilles' tonsils taste of snails it's probably too late not to be seduced.
Where were we?
The Normans. The Normans invaded Britain in 1066. Up until that time, Great Britain had been squabbled over for centuries by Romans, assorted Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Celts. The Celts, who were here before any of the others, got more and more marginalised during this time and ended up backing away into the territories that no-one else was all that interested in, ie Wales and Scotland, tourism being in its infancy then.
England had been a single autonomous kingdom, ie not part of the ridiculous-sounding Danish empire, for only about a hundred years or so when William the Conqueror decided that it was to become part of the William the Conqueror Empire, and set off across the Channel with an army in a lot of ships to organise that.
The incumbent king of England, Harold, was up north in York with his own army, busy fending off another invasion, from those troublesome Vikings (led incidentally by Harold's own brother Tostig. Families, eh!!) No sooner were the Vikings seen off - for the last time in history, as it happens - than Harold had to drag his weary army all the way down to Hastings to deal with the Normans.
He lost, of course, and if the Bayeaux Tapestry is anything to go by he got an arrow in the eye for his trouble, and William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard depending on your allegiances) became England's next king.
What did this mean for the Englishman in the street? Probably not a great deal. The Anglo-Saxon ruling class were booted out and all their castles and lands given to Norman knights and aristocrats. As far as your average peasant was concerned, he just had a new boss who talked funny.
A curiously long-lived side-effect of this business is that kings and queens of England are numbered from William 1st, as if the Anglo-Saxon kings before him didn't count... even though they were the only really English ones and therefore ought to count even more. A case, I think, of history being written by the winning side... and also part of a long-standing tradition of English kings and queens being anything but English.
Another interesting thought is that those Normans who were once the ruling class, are now so mixed in with the rest of us that many of their descendants are no doubt geography teachers and civil servants. Called Norman.

No comments: