1066: for those of us that fell asleep in ‘that’ history class

What then, as briefly as possible, is the relevance of 1066 over all other events in English history?

It almost seems that English history began in 1066, just like Scottish history seems to have commenced in 1314 on the fields of Bannockburn. Yet both tribes’ histories began when they arrived on the British mainland. And while the Scottish victory was a break for freedom, the English defeat was a break with the past and the setting of a new course for the future. It could even be argued that had the Normans not prevailed at Hastings, then the Scots may even have lost at Bannockburn, seeing that Robert the Bruce was of Norman stock, but we digress, and cantankerously at that.

The Norman influences were numerous and far reaching, so I will list them for convenience and in the interests of the time-pressed times we live in.

  • They introduced castle building and this meant that they probably made the island impregnable against any further invasion, at least until the canon was invented
  • They introduced the method of cavalry and it was for this and the innovation of castles that the Scots, wisely, invited the Normans to settle their east coast. So it should come as no surprise to learn that many prominent Scottish families have Norman names, such as Stewart, Bruce, Fraser, Grant, Sutherland and most notably Wallace among them
  • Chivalry, which later became synonymous with the English knight, was therefore  a Norman introduction
  • The Norman French tongue, which became the official language at court, transformed the way we speak and write and the beauty of Old English was lost forever. We now possess much Latin-based vocabulary and a different word order to name but a few differences. Some say that had the Normans not invaded then English today would largely resemble modern Dutch, a culture we have many ties with
  • The Normans invaded Ireland for the first time, which led to 800 years of English entanglement and unwelcome meddling in the affairs of the Emerald Isle
  • The Normans led us into Wales at the point of a sword and Edward Longshanks continued the onslaught; a king very much in the Norman mould
  • The Normans brought with them their territorial possessions in France, which lead to at least 500 years of conflict with the French. One could say that the Norman intervention then put the English on the front foot and much conflict in British history may have been spared us, but that is a bold claim
  • Surnames. Until they arrived Harold was Harold the son of Godwin, until historians dubbed him Godwinson. Surnames were introduced for tax purposes and there is no bigger tax declaration in the world than the Domesday Book
  • Cathedrals – with the appropriation of Noble lands, titles and privilege the Normans could do much as they pleased. Thus, they allocated a disproportionate share of the land’s riches for the construction of magnificent stone edifices and embarked upon one of the greatest building projects in English history, leaving us with such notable structures as Durham cathedral, Ely cathedral (a personal favourite), as well as the cathedrals of Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, Winchester and Southwell Minster. Not forgetting the Tower of London. We call it Normanesque style but it was in fact the Romanesque
  • They changed the capital from the Anglo-Saxon centre of Winchester to the Roman Londinium

In the end, the Normans provoked an irrevocable break with an old English past, so much so that King Edward I is not the first English Edward; he was the first Norman Edward. And despite this, the Norman impact paved the way for a new English identity. Today we speak a modified, even modernised, form of English not French. We may have French lions on our shields and fleur-de-lis everywhere but we have the English rose and the pedunculate oak to admire. The only King to ever be named ‘Great’ was Anglo-Saxon, never Norman or Dutch. Our patron saint, George, was supposedly Greek; our national dishes are Roast Beef from the French bœuf and fish and chips, which is Jewish. We proudly drink tea which is Chinese and Wellington, who all Europe toasted except France, was Irish. So as is plain for anyone to see, we have no need to depend on the French for our English national symbols.