How the Norman Conquerors Lived in EnglandCategory: 12th century
The new masters were strangers in the country. They had different manners, customs and laws from those of the conquered people. They spoke a foreign tongue and the Anglo-Saxon peasants could not understand their speech. The conquerors were few in number but they were harsh and cruel rulers. They punished those who dared to disobey severely, to intimidate and to suppress the conquered people. The Anglo-Saxons felt great hatred towards their new masters. The Normans did not feel safe in the conquered country for they could be attacked at any time. They were compelled to buiid large thick stone-walled castles for defence where they lived with their families and vassals.
Before the Norman Conquest the Anglo-Saxon lords lived in timber houses. Sometimes the lord’s house was built on a hill with a strong wooden fence or palisade round it, and with a ditch outside the fence. These were not castles. After the Norman Conquest strong castles began to appear in each county. At first they were built of wood and later of stone. The first of these stone castles was the Tower of London. The Conqueror ordered it to be built on the north bank of the Thames to protect London. The great castle of Durham was built to protect northern England from the raids of the Scots. Another fortress was built on the river Tyne and was called Newcastle. Many other castles were built in the reign of William the Conqueror. At first most of the castles belonged to the king, but later on great castles belonging to the Norman barons arose all over England. The old timber houses were pulled down, and the villagers were forced to build strong castles in which the new lords and their fighting men lived.
The Norman castle was often built on a hill or rock so that it could not easily be attacked. The castle was as a rule a square stone tower with very thick walls and it was surrounded by a thick stone wall wide enough for the archers to walk along. The outer wall was strengthened with towers built on each corner. Outside the wall was a deep ditch, or moat, filled with water. The moat could be crossed by a drawbridge. At night and during the enemy attacks the drawbridge was drawn up by chains.
The chief tower where the baron and his family lived, was called the keep. This was the strongest part of the building. Between the keep and the outer massive wall there was a court where stood the stables for horses and houses for the servants. Later the keep in the Norman castle was surrounded by two or even three stone walls. The castle dominated over the country round. The Anglo-Saxon neighbours saw themselves constantly controlled by the foreign oppressors, who were safe behind the massive walls of their castles. Some of the massive strong towers built by the Normans can be seen in England today, like the White Tower of London Tower or the keep of the castle at Colchester which was the largest Norman castle in England. Some, such as Windsor Castle, are still used as residences. But most of the old Norman castles are ruins which can still be seen in various parts of England.
The Norman noble considered war his chief occupation. Each noble was a knight, or a fully armed mounted warrior. The armour of a Norman knight consisted of mail, which fitted close to the body. The head was covered with a helmet and each knight carried a shield. His horse was also protected by armour. Nobles were trained in warfare from childhood. It was honourable to be a knight and the sons of nobles were trained to become good knights. They were not taught to read and write. Nobles in heavy armour could fight skilfully on horseback, but they were coarse and ignorant. They spent their childhood and youth in military training and as they grew up they spent their time in wars or feasting with the guests in the halls of their castles. The Norman lords were fond of the tournament, a military competition between knights, and hunting, as they both were akin to warfare.
William the Conqueror himself was very fond of hunting. He chose a place near Salisbury and gave orders to make it an enormous hunting-ground. Sixty villages were destroyed; barns, houses, churches were burnt to the ground. Hundreds of poor Anglo-Saxon peasants were driven from the land. This wide space was called the New Forest. (Today, much of it is covered with trees and is still called the New Forest.) There were many other forests set aside for the royal hunting. The king and his nobles would turn whatever part of the country they found suitable into hunting-ground. All the uncultivated lands were turned into forests for hunting. To be sure, not too much concern was shown for the sown fields either. Very often while hunting the lords rode across the peasants’ fields and destroyed their crops. That was their right for they felt that they owned the land and the peasants as well.