Asked of the Romans, it could equally be asked of the Normans. England, France and Ireland have all tended to ignore or sideline the influence of the Normans. For all their glorious achievements the Normans loom smaller than they should in our histories. To understand this, we need to consider how a Viking leader established mutiple dynasties that shaped European history at one of its most formative times.
Rollo the Viking may have adopted the outward form of the Franks, feudal obeisance, even Christianity but it is unlikely that he internalised much of it. In granting him extensive lands along the Seine, the Franks had made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse, to the immense benefit of both sides. The next generation born in Normandy would be immersed in the ways and mores of the Franks, beginning with his son and heir, William Longsword. William would die young in an ambush but he was a devote Christian and emphatically confirmed his people’s transition from Viking to feudal aristocracy. The duchy of Normandy would survive minorities and successfully negotiate the transition from the Carolignians to the House of Capet as the new kings of France. Indeed, the duchy of Normandy would be the best administrated region of France and a model for the emerging nation state of both France and England.
Rollo may have hoped that he was founding a dynasty but his settlement in the Seine valley was a move wiser than he could have realised. Though Vikings were well informed of the ebb and flow of power within Europe, no one could have grasped the immense changes underway as the Dark Ages drew to a close and a new form of polity began to emerge, the nation state. The eleventh and twelfth centuries were profoundly formative ones. They would define much of subsequent European history across the spectrum of politics, religion and culture.
What was the basis of this society and how did it differ from the one in which Rollo was born, raised, and in which he had risen to such prominence as a Viking? To return to our original question, how did the Normans become so different from the Vikings they would encounter in Ireland?
Let us start with something so natural to us that we take them for granted – cities. Notably Rollo and his kin established themselves in Rouen. This had been a Roman city, much reduced by Viking raids until refortified and repopulated by the Frankish King Odo. It would prosper and become the capital city of the duchy of Norman and the lynch pin of their domain. Cities are more than just population centres or bases from which to concentrate and deploy military forces. Cities make possible the bureaucracy of government, the collection and storage of tax revenue, the administration of criminal justice and punishment, the recording of laws, regulations, land ownership, and information about population. All of these activities require and therefore create professional classes which in turn generate and expand cities as centres of administration, trade, learning and intellectual life. Cities make government possible, they make nation states possible.
Critically in Europe, cities were also the bureaucratic centres of the Church. Bishops, as the princes of the Church, along with their scribes formed the civil service of the emergent nation states, notably in the Chancellery which provided the secretarial office of the king. The Chancellor at this time took the notes, wrote the charters, issued the king’s letters and filled the key documents. Invariably he was a bishop and did his work in Latin. This bureaucratic drudgery was essential to the projection of power won by warrior kings in battle. Cities were also essential to commerce and acted as accelerators of industry, technology and skills. The tax and wealth they generated, combined with the machinery of government, allowed for the creation and maintenance of professional armies. For the Roman Empire, cities were the pinions of civilisation. As cities declined with the empire, Europe fell into chaos, civilisation reduced to that preserved by the great monasteris (see Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilisation). As the cities revived, so did Europe.
Castles served a similar purpose, though they were purposefully military in intent, a way of projecting power and defending territory. In that, they were problematic for they allowed local magnates resist central power. Castles were in effect a measure of civil strife. As the nation state developed, kings would over time limit and eventually eliminate castles not directly in the service of the state.
True, Vikings established their own cities and the Danes were the first to concentrate populations and establish kingships, well ahead of the Norwegians and Swedes. But they remained primarily ports for trade and raiding, not centres of laws, taxes, and bureaucracy. In taking Rouen as their capital, Rollo and his followers were adopting a new way of holding power, grafting themselves onto a system of organisation maintained by the church that had its roots in Rome.
It may not have been clear to Rollo, but the Church itself, notably under Gregory VII, was engaged in a vast exercise of reform, a key aspect of which was to partner with secular leaders in bringing political stability from the chaos of the Dark Ages. This was to forge an alliance of church and state that would endure into the twentieth century. The fortunes of Norman conquerors from England to the further edges of Christendom would turn on the ebb and flow of their relationship with the Papacy for the Papacy granted legitimacy to kings and nobles. [Note: The partnership of the kings and the Church was particularly formative for Western Europe, influencing the development of feudalism as system of contractual rights, setting a limit to the reach of the state, and inculcating a sense of the dignity inherent in all irrespective of social status however much its observation was fitful and incomplete: for more on this see Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order.]
If castles were inimical to the interest of the emergent nation states, land was the great lever in the hands of kings. Normans might win land through the sword, but they could only hold it and pass it on if they stood in favour with the king. The possession of land was a function of feudalism. Rollo may have been granted the duchy of Normandy as a heritable gift but when he placed his hands within those of the king, Charles the Simple, in his act of homage, he was submitting to the king’s favour. To break his fealty would forfeit his possessions. Holding onto land was no longer simply a function of military might and supportive kin but a matter of politics and the assertion of legal rights within a system controlled by the state. To accept this and to assume feudal obligations meant the end of the Viking way of life, the free booting independence of traders and raiders. Unlike the Vikings, the Normans would pay tax.
The Normans took to law and governance with surprising alacrity. They were punctilious about observance of laws and the honouring of rights. In this they were following in the tradition of Charlemagne and in turn the Romans. William the Conqueror deployed the power of law as an instrument of power in England. Indeed, like the Romans before them, the Normans were great adopters of good practice. William would use elements of Anglo-Saxon law and administration that suited his purposes, notably sheriffs and this new institution, the Exchequer, an office he would export to Normandy. He knew too the power of information and commissioned the Domesday Book to record the details of the kingdom he had seized, the better to control it. His great grandson and royal heir, Henry II, consciously repeated this, insisting on the establishment and fair administration of law throughout England, using it to resolve the bitter land disputes that were inevitable after the years of anarchy in bringing stability to the realm. So successful was he in this that the capriciousness of his son, King John, led the English magnates to reign him back to the rule of law through the Magna Carta.
Holding land was essential to the Normans and their manors were organised to be as self-sufficient as possible. As the Lord of the Manor the Norman aristocracy became a vital part of the feudal chain of organisation, owing obligations to the king just as peasants owed obligations to them, these obligations in turn were reciprocated by obligations of protection. The Manor imitated the form of monasteries which in turn echoed that of the Roman villas. Lords of the Manor were part of the judicial system. They operated their own courts under public law and following local customs of tenure and did so until the 19th century. Holding fairs, developing trade and markets, establishing towns and villages, and investing in the infrastructure of roads, bridges and harbours were all hallmarks of Norman life and colonisation. Where we see these in Ireland they are part of our Norman heritage, alien to Gaelic Ireland.
You had of course to get land before you could hold it. The Normans were a fecund bunch and illegitimate children were recognised, at least in the first hundred years until the Church clamped down on it. For male offspring, the challenge was to get land. The eldest son would inherit two-thirds but the younger sons had to fend for themselves. For most of them this meant winning land through the sword. Sword land was recognised as a legitimate way of seizing land and it was this drive to acquire land that generated Norman expansion into England, Wales, Ireland, Italy and the Middle East.
Being a member of the landed aristocracy conferred on Normans a key advantage in battle. It allowed young boys and men to devote their lives completely to soldiering. From the time they could walk, they were taught to ride horses and to fight. In an age where most soldiers were part time, earning their living as farmers or fishermen, the Normans had a clear advantage – at war, they were professionals. Their speciality was as armoured mounted soldiers, in other words knights. They were the armoured divisions of their day, using mobility, ruse and the shock of the well timed charged to win the field. This advantage outweighed their often limited numbers; again and again, the fortunes of Normans turned on their martial prowess in the field and their skill as cavalry against larger odds. (The association of cavalry and landed gentry would endure for centuries.) They combined this with the rapid establishment of fortified bases, motte-and-bailies, which were very effective means of territorial control.
A further and critical dimension to the Normans was their Christian faith. Most warrior casts need the assurance of a strong belief system and Normans were zealous in their religious commitment and their submission to Rome, notwithstanding the odd politick defiance, was par for the course. It took its most obvious form in their support for the establishment of religious orders (Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries most notably) and the building of churches and Cathedrals. Endowments and land grants were undertaken as a matter of course by Norman lords and their wives. Family members would become princes of the Church, though Rome increasingly asserted its sole right to do this. And of course Norman lords played leading roles in the first three Crusades.
All of these elements were on display when the Normans landed in Ireland and established their presence here. As Cambro-Normans, they were well versed in fighting the native Welsh whose organisation and style of warfare was similar to the Gaelic. All this guided the nature of the force they assembled in Wales, including of course mounted knights but also mounted Welsh bowmen, Breton allies, and Flemish mercenaries. They numbered no more than a few hundred but were well prepared and organised. Their alliance with MacMurrough gave them precise intelligence about the opposition they would face and the terrain in which they would be operating. They quickly seized Waterford and Wexford, securing these as their bases and sources of resupply. Dodging the High King’s forces at Castleknock, they stole up through Wicklow and most likely approached Dublin via Rathfarnham, seizing Dublin from the Danes who uncharacteristically fled in panic. As they pounced on Gaelic armies, they secured their holdings with motte-and-bailey fortifications, soon replaced stone towers and castles. They established their manorial system and set about building villages, towns, ports, bridges and abbeys. In all of this one can see the outlines of what a Roman invasion would have looked like.
There was one likely critical difference. The Romans tended to do things completely when it came to invasion. Their conquests of Gaul and England were complete. The Normans in Ireland were opportunists. Strongbow’s rapid success in Ireland was still only partial by the time Henry II arrived in 1171 with a show of force. Yet Henry’s intention had as much to do with checking Strongbow and ensuring that Ireland would not become a rival kingdom. Rather Ireland would be a held as a Lordship, under the suzerainty of the crown. It was a partial conquest only that left Gaelic society in possession of much of the land and itself pretty much intact as a way of life. The point of English policy in Ireland was to control it at minimum cost to the Exchequer. This meant that Norman and Gaelic life would endure side by side for the following centuries. The fortunes of the colonists who came from England and settled around Dublin and the other cities would ebb and flow, more often ebbing as the influence of the Crown shrank back to Dublin and the pale during the later Middle Ages.
Contrast the style and success in Ireland of the Normans with that for their Viking forebears. The Vikings were raiders, initially in small groups and later in larger formations that became armies. But their success was in surprise attacks and in the weakness of those from whom they sought to plunder. Where they faced concerted defences and opposition, they faltered. This was true of Western Europe under Charlemagne and it was true too in Ireland where the Vikings were confined to their city ports by the Gaelic Irish. After the battle of Clontarf, the Gaelic did not seize Dublin but the establishment of a Danish kingdom in Ireland was checked. Vikings prized individual martial prowess. Normans, on the other hand, prized command, discipline, and coordinated movement. Their amour of conical helmets and chainmail were commonplace and had been so since Roman times; so was their weaponry of shields, swords and lances. Yet combined with disciplined cavalry (aided by the stirrup which allowed them leverage the power of the lance) and a tireless inventiveness on the field, they were formidable, well capable of besting far greater forces arraigned against them.
Finally, the Normans understood the value of building alliances in the lands they conquered, following the early example of Rollo. Through marriage – generally Norman men marrying local women – they formed alliances and secured their holdings. A key part of the deal between Strongbow and Dermot MacMurrough was that Dermot would give his daughter in marriage to him. Their daughter in turn was given by Henry II in marriage to William Marshall in reward for a lifetime of service.
The most successful contingent of the Normans who arrived in Ireland were not however associated with Strongbow or Marshall but rather the FitzGeralds. It was the FitzGeralds, descendants of the fabulous Welsh Princess Nest, who over the coming generations through war and inter-marriage with the Gaelic Irish became the leading family of Ireland. They artfully mediated relations between Ireland and the English crown for centuries, until that role was made redundant by the imperialist ambitions of the Tudors in the sixteenth century. The 10th Earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald, was executed along with five of his uncles at Tyburn in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. It was only after the rebellion of Silken Thomas and his execution that Ireland was declared a kingdom in 1542 and ruled by the English crown.
The two and a half centuries between the founding Normandy in 911 and the arrival of the Normans in Ireland in 1169 saw an extraordinary evolution, the measure of which was evident in the rapidity with which the Vikings collapsed militarily and Viking Ireland disappeared with the arrival of Strongbow and his knights. The critical distinction was Norman capacity for organisation, from the preparation for the campaign, its execution in the field, the manner in which they turned victories into facts on the ground, and their assiduous creation of functioning administrations.
Yet the irony of the Norman invasion of Ireland was that it came just as Norman power was fading. Norman glory was well past its high point by then, its influence in its closing chapter as both England and France went their separate ways and Norman lords assimilated. In Ireland, much like the Vikings before them, they would enter a kind of time-warp, lingering as an anachronism until the arrival of the aggressively Protestant New English in Ireland with all their imperialist certainties and ethnic fury.
What then of Norman identity? Why did it fade when other identities endured like the French, English, Irish and Italian? The most obvious answer is that the Normans never founded a nation state that was purely Norman. Moreover, one of their great strengths was adaptability to local mores the better to secure their positions. Yet the explanation is more complex than that for it is hard to imagine either England or France without the foundations laid by the Normans as state builders – in the administrative and legal systems they developed, in the stability they brought, the trade they developed, the urban developments and centres of respite and learning in religious houses and the Church that they sponsored.
In France, Normandy remained a duchy, subservient to the Frankish king in Paris. Notably Henry II had had a chance to challenge Louis VII, the Capetian King of France and his feudal overlord. Yet he declined to capture Louis at the siege of Toulouse in 1159, too punctilious about his role within feudal society and the fearful of the audacity of a strike for kingship of France. Henry might be kind of England and control more than half of France but he was a vassal of the king. In historical terms, the glory of France would not admit of a major contribution from Normans and they would remain in the nation’s narrative secondary to the Franks.
In England, the Normans were never numerous enough to impose their Anglo-French language and their spoken word retreated in favour of the emerging English language. However much English was profoundly influenced by the Normans, the historical narrative could not admit it. Nor could it admit the fact that the Normans built the common law system and the baronial society so fundamental to English society. This was in part because the Normans were regarded as conquerors where, oddly enough, the Anglo-Saxons were seen as a foundational influence. Much of this can be attributed to 19th century historians who looked to the Dark Ages for ‘racial’ origins; the English found the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans the Norse, and the Irish the Celts. The Normans, protean and liberal (wherever they went but most decidedly in their multicultural kingdom of Sicily), didn’t fit into this dangerously romanticised search for pure antecedents.
The lack of recognition of the Norman contribution was repeated in Ireland. This is partly too to do with the fact that they came as conquerors but assimilated into the fabric of our nation. They merged into the local society where the cliché captured at least half a truth: they became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Their true assimilation as Irish would only really occur when they, as the Old English, opted to adhere to Catholicism in face of the Protestant Reformation and the pressure of the Tudors. With that decision, they finally cast their lot with their Irish identity and in many ways eroded their own distinctive contribution. It is also partly I suspect to with the fact that we find it hard to imagine what Gaelic life was life before the Normans. How can we imagine a society that did not have all the vestiges of a state that the Normans brought with them? We have to imagine a nation state that existed in the mind, as an intellectual feat of memory and custom.
So for complex reasons, the Normans faded as a distinct identity. If you ever wonder what the Normans ever did for us, remember that their contribution to the development of Western Europe was both critical and enduring, even if unacknowledged. By a strange elixir of circumstance, their Viking character grafted onto the remnants of Roman civilisation, revivifying a host of characteristics that were Roman – the centrality of cities, the devotion to the rule of law, the adoption of complex bureaucracy, the professionalization of armies, and the alliance with the Church in stabilizing Europe, the building the nation state, and the audacity of their drive to conquest. In all of this, the Normans were the new Romans, setting in train a new age for Europe. This new age was founded on the nation states and nation states have a way of simplying their historical narratives. In helping to create the nation state, the Normans ironically created the means of their own erosion from the record.