"Thus came, lo! England into Normandy's hand"

External History of Early Middle English

The ancestors of the invaders (the Vikings, or "Northmen") settled in Normandy in 9th and 10th centuries. Rollo [Hrólfr], the Danish leader these settlers, came to an agreement with Charles the Simple in 912 which allowed the Danes the right to settle Normandy, with Rollo acknowledged as the first Duke. The adaptability of the Scandinavians when they settled in England was also in evidence here, most remarkably in the area of language assimilation: Rollo actually gave up his own language and adopted French. Legend has it that the son of the second Duke actually had to be sent to Bayeaux to learn his Grandsire's native tongue. Rollo also quickly converted to Christianity and initiated the construction of the very remarkable Norman cathedrals.

Why the Norman Invasion?

In 1002 Æthelred the Unready had married a Norman wife. When he was later driven into exile by those other northmen, Svein and Cnut, in 1014, he ironically sought and found refuge with his brother-in-law, the current Duke of Normandy.

1042: When the Danish line of English kings failed to produce an heir, Æthelred's son, Edward (the Confessor), was restored to the throne from which his father had been evicted. He was to be the last king in the direct male line of descent from Alfred the Great.

1066: But when Edward died without producing an heir, politics took over. Godwin, earl of West Saxons, had been the power behind the throne for some time during Edward's reign, and his son, Harold (Godwinson), succeeded him as Edward's principle advisor when Godwin died. When Edward died, in January 1066, Harold [II] was elected king. However, since he was not king by right, but by election, there was room for disputation, and Harold had compromised his claim to the throne when, in 1064, on a mission for King Edward to Normandy, he accepted a gift of arms from William, Duke of the Normans and the bastard son of Robert the Devil (who was suspected of poisoning his brother to gain the Norman throne). As a result of accepting this gift, Harold became William's liege--and reputedly even swore a solemn oath to assist King William to the throne. In Normandy, Duke William, who was second cousin to Edward, believed that he had a legitimate claim, a claim made stronger by Harold's own actions, and the support of Pope Alexander II who, with the condition that William swear to be his vassal, convened a kangaroo court that declared William the rightful ruler of England. Since the English did not acknowledge his claim, he had only one avenue left open to him if he were to achieve his ambition. By invoking the Pope's blessing and promising his supporters to reward them with English titles and lands, he managed to assemble a very powerful army. He made alliances with other rulers on the continent and set off for the English coast, after being delayed by for weeks by winds from the north.

Meanwhile, King Harold was off in the north fighting against the King of Norway, also named Harold (Harold Hardrada, i.e., "the ruthless") and the English King Harold's own brother, Tostig, who had thrown in with the Norse. The same winds that had delayed William favored the sailors from the north. Harold managed to vanquish his northern foes, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (near York), and the Norse King Harold was killed. But in the meantime his armies, thinking peace was at hand, had dispersed to bring in the harvest. Undermanned as he was, he managed to secure the high ground at Senlac, near Hastings (Oct 14, 1066). The position was strong and things went well until the Normans pretended to retreat, drawing the English army from its position on the hill. In the midst of the ensuing battle, Harold was shot through the eye with an arrow and died. Leaderless, the English side was reduced to chaos.


The stone commemorates the purported site of Harold's death. In the background are the remains of Battle Abbey.
©Daniel W. Mosser

The victorious William then conquered the southeastern coast and London and was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. In reality, however, much of England remained independent of his rule and he had to resume his campaign against the southwest, west and north, wiping out in the process, most of the native English nobility. He also replaced most of native clergy with Norman bishops and abbots, and Norman merchants took over much of the English commerce. Thus the English were reduced, for the most part, to the lower stations in the social structure. How much of this would have happened if William had been elected to the throne peacefully in place of Harold?

For 200 years after the conquest, French was the language of the upper classes in England. To what extent English remained in use among the lower classes is a matter of conjecture, but it is likely that its use was widespread and that at least some of the immigré French learned enough English to communicate with their peasants. Intermarriage also helped English maintain its "legitimacy." But clearly English was socially stigmatized as the language of the conquered people

At his death, William gave his Norman holdings to his eldest son, Henry the First (1100-1135) and the English throne to William, his second son. Later, both kingdoms were reunited under Henry I, and inherited by his nephew, Stephen of Blois [1135-54]. Stephan's successor Henry II [1154-1189], (son of William the Conqueror's widow, Matilda, and Geoffrey Plantagenet) expanded the kingdom's holdings in France, partly by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine ("divorced" from Louis VII, King of France, whose masculinity has often been subject to ridicule and who lived a monastic life). England, in fact, became much like a French colony, though gradually, as the Normans became more settled in England, the two peoples became more and more united, eventually, of course, identifying themselves as English as the split between France and English developed in the fourteenth century.

Funeral Effigies of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey
©Daniel W. Mosser

Courtly literature was written in French for French patrons from 1200 until, for the most part, Chaucer in the latter half of the Fourteenth Century. But we know that English continued for some time in the provinces and in the isolation of the monasteries, where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was continued in English until 1154.

The middle class (Medieval YUPPIES), of course, aspiring to upward mobility, began to learn to speak French, since that was obviously the language of prestige.

Thus we have a very confused linguistic situation in England from 1066 on, not just a bi-lingual situation, with French being the language of the aristocracy, and government, and English the language of the lower classes, but we also still have a strong influence of Latin in the Church and universities. Indeed, there are examples of tri-lingual documents, for example, a medical treatise in which the writer shifts between English, Latin, and French in the middle of sentences (macaronic).

Later Middle English