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The Normans

The Normans who emerged from Normandy in France in the 10th century were famed for their martial spirit and had a major political impact in medieval Europe.

Norman adventurers founded the Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II after briefly conquering southern Italy and Malta from the Saracens and Byzantines.

Then an expedition on behalf of their duke, William the Conqueror, led to the Norman conquest of England at the historic Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The Norman identity was forged  from the intermingling between Norse Viking settlers and indigenous West Franks and Gallo-Romans. The Norse settlements in West Francia followed a series of raids on the French northern coast mainly from Denmark, although some also sailed from Norway and Sweden.

The new Normans became keen Catholics and Norman French, an important literary language which is still spoken today in parts of mainland Normandy and the nearby Channel Islands

The Duchy of Normandy, which arose from the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, was a great fief of medieval France.

Between 1066 and 1204, as a result of the Norman conquest of England, most of the kings of England were also dukes of Normandy.

In the present day, the Channel Islands  are considered to be officially the last remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, and are not part of the United Kingdom but are instead self-governing Crown Dependencies.

The Normans are noted both for their unique Romanesque architectureand musical traditions, and for their significant military accomplishments and innovations.

Norman and Anglo-Norman forces contributed to the Iberian Reconquista from the early eleventh to the mid-thirteenth centuries.

Norman cultural and military influence spread from these new European centres to the Crusader states of the Near East, where their prince Bohemond I founded the Principality of Antioch in the Levant, and to the coasts of north Africa and the Canary Islands .

The legacy of the Normans persists today through the regional languages and dialects of France, England, Spain, Quebec and Sicily, and also through the various cultural, judicial, and political arrangements they introduced in their conquered territories.

The 11th century Benedictine monk and historian, Goffredo Malaterra, characterised the Normans :

Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war.

Norman forts
Norman forts


In the course of the 10th century, the initially destructive incursions of Norse war bands going upstream into the rivers of France evolved into more permanent encampments that included local French women and personal property.

The ruler of Western France at the time  Charles 111, also known as Charles the Simple , concluded a treaty with the Viking leader Rollo.

The treaty offered Rollo and his men the French coastal lands along the English Channel  in exchange for their protection against further Viking incursions.  Rollo swore not to invade further Frankish lands himself, accepted baptism and conversion to Christianity and swore fealty to King Charles III. He became the first Duke of Normandy .

The descendants of Vikings replaced the Norse religion and Old Norse language with Catholicism. The Norman language (Norman French) was forged by the adoption of the indigenous langue d’oïl branch of Romance by a Norse-speaking ruling class, and it developed into the French regional languagesthat survive today.

The new Norman rulers were culturally and ethnically distinct from the old French aristocracy, most of whom traced their lineage to the Franks of the Carolingian dynasty from the days of Charlemagne in the 9th century. By intermarrying with the local aristocracy and adopting the growing feudal doctrines of the rest of France, the Normans would progressively work these principles into a functional hierarchical system in their own duchy, and later export it to Norman dominated England.

As the proliferation of aristocratic families throughout the French kingdom limited the prospects of most heirs, young knights were encouraged to seek land and riches beyond their homeland, with Normandy becoming a major source of such adventurers. Many Normans of Italy, France and England eventually served as avid Crusaders soldiers under the Italo-Norman prince Bohemund I of Antioch and the Angevin-Norman king Richard the Lion-Heart, one of the more famous and illustrious Kings of England.



Opportunistic bands of Normans successfully established a foothold in southern Italy. Probably as the result of returning pilgrims’ stories, the Normans entered southern Italy as warriors in 1017 at the latest.

From these bases, the Normans eventually captured Sicily and Malta from the Muslims, under the leadership of the famous Robert Guiscard, a Hauteville, and his younger brother Roger the Great Count. Roger’s son, Roger II of Sicily, was crowned king in 1130 .

The Kingdom of Sicilylasted until 1194. The Normans left their legacy in many castles, such as William Iron Arm’s citadel at Squillace, and cathedrals, such as Roger II’s Cappella which dot the landscape and give a distinct architectural flavor to accompany its unique history.

Institutionally, the Normans combined the administrative machinery of the Byzantines, Arabs, and Lombards with their own conceptions of feudal law and order to forge a unique government.

Under this state, there was great religious freedom, and alongside the Norman nobles existed a meritocratic bureaucracy of Jews, Muslims and Christians, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The Kingdom of Sicily thus became characterized by Norman, Byzantine, Greek, Arab, Lombard and “native” Sicilian populations living in harmony, and its Norman rulers fostered plans of establishing an empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt as well as the crusader states in the Levant.One of the great geographical treatises of the Middle Ages, the “Tabula Rogeriana”, was written by the Andalusian al-Idrisi for King Roger II of Sicily,.


The Iberian Peninsula

The Normans began appearing in the military confrontations between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula from  the early eleventh century.

Even after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the Normans continued to participate in ventures in the peninsula. After the Frankish conquest of the Holy Land during the First Crusade, the Normans began to be encouraged to participate in ventures of conquest in the northeast of the peninsula.

With the rising popularity of the sea route to the Holy Land, Norman and Anglo-Norman crusaders also started to be encouraged locally by Iberian prelates to participate in the Portuguese incursions into the western areas of the Peninsula. The first of these incursions occurred when a fleet of these Crusaders was invited by the Portuguese king Afonso I Henriques to conquer the city of Lisbon in 1142.[Although this Siege of Lisbon was a failure it created a precedent for their involvement in Portugal. So in 1147 when another group of Norman and other groups of crusaders from Northern Europe arrived in Porto on their way to join the crusading forces of the Second Crusade, the Bishop of Porto  convinced them to help with the siege of Lisbon. This time the city was captured and and many of them settled in the newly sacked city. The following year the remainder of the crusading fleet, including a substantial number of Anglo-Normans, was invited by the count of Barcelona,to participate in the siege of Tortosa of 1148. Again the Normans were rewarded with lands in the newly conquered frontier city.


North Africa

Between 1135 and 1160, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily conquered and kept as vassals several cities on the North African  coast- Tunisia and parts of Algeria and Libya today. They were lost to the Almohads.



Soon after the Normans began to enter Italy, they entered the Byzantine Empire and then Armenia, fighting against  the Bulgarians, and especially the Seljuk Turks. Norman mercenaries were first encouraged to come to the south to act against the Byzantines, but they soon fought in Byzantine service in Sicily.

There  were already Norman mercenaries serving as far away as Georgia in 1050. In the 1060s, Robert Crispinled the Normans of Edessa against the Turks. Roussel de Bailleul even tried to carve out an independent state in Asia Minor with support from the local population in 1073, but he was stopped in 1075 by the Byzantine general and future emperor Alexius Komnenos.

Some Normans joined Turkish forces to aid in the destruction of the Armenian vassal-states  in far eastern Anatolia. A Norman named Oursel led a force of “Franks” into the upper Euphrates valley in northern Syria. From 1073 to 1074, 8,000 of the 20,000 troops of the Armenian general Philaretus Brachamius were Normans—formerly of Oursel—led by Raimbaud.

Several families of Byzantine Greece were of Norman mercenary origin , when Byzantine emperors were seeking out western European warriors.

Robert Guiscard, another Norman adventurer, ultimately drove the Byzantines out of southern Italy. Robert continued his campaign conquering the Balkan peninsula as a foothold for western feudal lords and the Catholic Church. After allying himself with Croatia and the Catholic cities of Dalmatia, in 1081 he led an army of 30,000 men in 300 ships landing on the southern shores of Albania reaching Butrint after numerous pillages. They joined the fleet that had previously conquered Corfu and attacked Dyrrachium from land and sea, devastating everything along the way. Under these harsh circumstances, the locals accepted the call of Emperor Alexios I Comnenos to join forces with the Byzantines against the Normans. Forced to retreat, Alexios ceded the city of Dyrrachium .

A few years after the First Crusade, in 1107, the Normans under the command of Bohemond, Robert’s son, landed in Valona and besieged Dyrrachium using the most sophisticated military equipment of the time, but to no avail. This time, the Albanians sided with the Normans, dissatisfied by the heavy taxes the Byzantines had imposed upon them.

The further decline of Byzantine state-of-affairs paved the road to a third attack in 1185, when a large Norman army invaded Dyrrachium, Some time later, Dyrrachium—one of the most important naval bases of the Adriatic—fell again to Byzantine hands.



The Normans were in contact with England from an early date. Not only were their original Viking brethren still ravaging the English coasts, they occupied most of the important ports opposite England across the English Channel. This relationship eventually produced closer ties of blood .

When Edward the Confessor finally returned from his father’s refuge in 1041, at the invitation of his half-brother Harthacnut, he brought with him a Norman-educated mind. He also brought many Norman counsellors and fighters, some of whom established an English cavalry force .

On 14 October 1066, William the Conquerorgained a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, which led to the conquest of England three years later. This can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry. The invading Normans and their descendants largely replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England. The nobility of England were part of a single Norman culture and many had lands on both sides of the channel. Early Norman kings of England, as Dukes of Normandy, owed homage to the King of France for their land on the continent. They considered England to be their most important holding (it brought with it the title of King—an important status symbol).

Eventually, the Normans merged with the natives, combining languages and traditions. In the course of the Hundred Years’ War, the Norman aristocracy often identified themselves as English. The Anglo-Norman language became distinct from the French spoken in Paris, something that was the subject of some humour by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Anglo-Norman language was eventually absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon language of their subjects ( Old English) and influenced it, helping (along with the Norse language of the earlier Anglo-Norse settlers and the Latin used by the church) in the development of Middle English, which, in turn, evolved into Modern English.



The Normans had a profound effect on Irish culture and history after their invasion at Bannow Bay in 1169. Initially, the Normans maintained a distinct culture and ethnicity. Yet, with time, they came to be subsumed into Irish culture to the point that it has been said that they became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. The Normans settled mostly in an area in the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and also built many fine castles and settlements, including Trim Castle and Dublin Castle. The cultures intermixed, borrowing from each other’s language, culture and outlook. Norman surnames still exist today. Names such as French, (De) Roche, Devereux, D’Arcy, Treacy and Lacy are particularly common in the southeast of Ireland, especially in the southern part of Wexford County, where the first Norman settlements were established. Other Norman names, such as Furlong, predominate there.Another common Norman-Irish name was Morell (Murrell), derived from the French Norman name Morel. Names beginning with Fitz- (from the Norman for “son”) usually indicate Norman ancestry. Hiberno-Norman surnames with the prefix Fitz- include Fitzgerald, FitzGibbons(Gibbons) as well as Fitzmaurice. Families bearing such surnames as Barry (de Barra) and De Búrca (Burke) are also of Norman extraction.



One of the claimants of the English throne opposing William the Conqueror, Edgar Atheling, eventually fled to Scotland. King Malcolm III of Scotland married Edgar’s sister Margaret, and came into opposition to William who had already disputed Scotland’s southern borders. William invaded Scotland in 1072, riding as far as Abernethy where he met up with his fleet of ships. Malcolm submitted, paid homage to William and surrendered his son Duncan as a hostage, beginning a series of arguments as to whether the Scottish Crown owed allegiance to the King of England.

Normans went into Scotland, building castles and founding noble families that would provide some future kings, such as Robert the Bruce, as well as founding a considerable number of the Scottish clans.  The Norman-derived feudal system was applied in varying degrees to most of Scotland. Scottish families of the names Bruce, Gray, Ramsay, Fraser, Rose, Ogilvie, Montgomery, Sinclair, Pollock, Burnard, Douglas and Gordon to name but a few, and including the later royal House of Stewart, can all be traced back to Norman ancestry.


On crusade

The legendary religious zeal of the Normans was exercised in religious wars long before the First Crusade carved out a Norman principality in Antioch

In 1096, Crusaders passing by the siege of Amalfi were joined by Bohemond of Tarantoand his nephew Tancred with an army of Italo-Normans. Bohemond was the de facto leader of the Crusade during its passage through Asia Minor. After the successful Siege of Antioch in 1097, Bohemond began carving out an independent principality around that city. Tancred was instrumental in the conquest of Jerusalem and he worked for the expansion of the Crusader kingdom in Transjordan and Galilee.


Anglo-Norman conquest of Cyprus

The conquest of Cyprus by the Anglo-Normanforces of the Third Crusade opened a new chapter in the history of the island, which would be under Western European domination for the following 380 years. Although not part of a planned operation, the conquest had much more permanent results than initially expected.

In April 1191, Richard the Lion-hearted left Messina with a large fleet in order to reach Acre. But a storm dispersed the fleet. After some searching, it was discovered that the boat carrying his sister and his fiancée Berengaria was anchored on the south coast of Cyprus, together with the wrecks of several other ships, including the treasure ship. Survivors of the wrecks had been taken prisoner by the island’s despot Isaac Komnenos. On 1 May 1191, Richard’s fleet arrived in the port of Limassol

Various princes of the Holy Land arrived in Limassol at the same time, in particular Guy de Lusignan. All declared their support for Richard provided that he support Guy against his rival Conrad of Montferrat.  Richard then proceeded to conquer the whole island, his troops being led by Guy .  His exploit was well publicized and contributed to his reputation; he also derived significant financial gains from the conquest of the island.Richard left for Acre on 5 June.

While in Limassol, Richard the Lion-Heart married Berengaria of Navarre, first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. The wedding was held on 12 May 1191  and was celebrated with great pomp and splendor. Among other grand ceremonies was a double coronation: Richard caused himself to be crowned King of Cyprus, and Berengaria Queen of England and Queen of Cyprus as well.

The rapid Anglo-Norman conquest proved more important than it seemed. The island occupied a key strategic position on the maritime lanes to the Holy Land, whose occupation by the Christians could not continue without support from the sea.Shortly after the conquest, Cyprus was sold to the Knights Templar and it was subsequently acquired, in 1192, by Guy de Lusignan and became a stable feudal kingdom. It was only in 1489 that the Venetians acquired full control of the island, which remained a Christian stronghold until the fall of Famagusta to the Ottomans in 1571.



When Norse Vikings from Scandinavia arrived in and settled the land that became known as Normandy, they originally spoke Old Norse, a North Germanic language. Over time, they came to live among the local Gallo-Romance-speaking population, with the two communities converging to the point that the original Norsemen largely assimilated and adopted the local dialect of Old French while contributing some elements from the Old Norse language. This Norse-influenced dialect which then arose was known as Old Norman, and it is the ancestor of both the modern Norman language still spoken today in the Channel Islands and parts of mainland Normandy, as well as the historical Anglo-Norman languagein England. Old Norman was also an important language of the Principality of Antioch during Crusader rule in the Levant.


Norman law

The customary law of Normandy was developed between the 10th and 13th centuries and survives today through the legal systems of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands.



Norman architecture typically stands out as a new stage in the architectural history of the regions they subdued. They spread a unique Romanesque idiom to England, Italy and Ireland, and the encastellation of these regions with keeps in their north French style fundamentally altered the military landscape. Their style was characterised by rounded arches, particularly over windows and doorways, and massive proportions.

In England, the period of Norman architecture immediately succeeds that of the Anglo-Saxonand precedes the Early Gothic. In southern Italy, the Normans incorporated elements of Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine building techniques into their own, initiating a unique style known as Norman-Arab architecturewithin the Kingdom of Sicily.



TheFrench Wars of Religion in the 16th century and the French Revolutionin the 18th successively destroyed much of what existed in the way of the architectural and artistic remnant of this Norman creativity.

By far the most famous work of Norman art is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not a tapestrybut a work of embroidery. It was commissioned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and first Earl of Kent, employing natives from Kent who were learned in the Nordic traditions imported in the previous half century by the Danish Vikings.

In Britain, Norman art primarily survives as stonework or metalwork, such as capitals and baptismal fonts. In southern Italy, however, Norman artwork survives plentifully in forms strongly influenced by its Greek, Lombard, and Arab forebears. Of the royal regalia preserved in Palermo, the crown is Byzantine in style and the coronation cloak is of Arab craftsmanship with Arabic inscriptions. Many churches preserve sculptured fonts, capitals, and more importantly mosaics, which were common in Norman Italy and drew heavily on the Greek heritage. Lombard Salerno was a centre of ivorywork in the 11th century and this continued under Norman domination. French Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land brought with them French artefacts with which to gift the churches at which they stopped in southern Italy amongst their Norman cousins. For this reason many south Italian churches preserve works from France alongside their native pieces.