The Normans in Scotland

by Janet McNaughton

Many of the characters in An Earthly Knight speak French as their first language. What are French-speaking people doing in 12th century Scotland?  It's an interesting story.

If you look on a map of France, just across the English Channel from England is an area still known as Normandy, although today it has been divided into modern départements. The Normans who conquered England in the year 1066 came from this area, but "Norman" is a version of the word "Norseman." A few centuries before the Norman Conquest of England, these people had migrated down from Scandinavia to settle the warmer and more fertile lands of north west France. The Normans were, in fact, Vikings once removed. By 1066, though, they had adopted European customs, the French language and Roman Catholic Christianity. The Normans who conquered England were, for their time, very modern Western Europeans.

To find out more about the Normans, visit the BBC's   Normans web page  which links to many pages about different aspects of Norman history. 

The European Commission website also has a good page, The Normans, a European People, with information about Norman history and culture in the 10th to 12th centuries. 

Why Did the Normans Conqueror England? 

When Edward the Confessor, who was king of England, died in 1066, he left no sons to take his place on the throne. Edward had grown up in exile in  Normandy and brought many Norman clergymen and nobles to England during his twenty-four year reign. The English favoured Harold, son of a powerful English earl to become their king, but William, Duke of Normandy, claimed that Edward the Confessor had named him as rightful heir to the throne. He also said that Harold had sworn to honour his claim while visiting Normandy before Edward died. Harold was crowned king of England on the same day that Edward the Confessor was buried, but William of Normandy gathered other French nobles, amassed a huge army, crossed the English Channel and made an encampment at Hastings.   

BBC Radio 4 did a three part program about the Normans and how they changed Britain. You can listen to these programs by visiting  The Norman Way.

The Battle of  Hastings

The English fought as they had for centuries at the battle of Hastings, in a massed army of  men all using the same type of combat. Whether noble or common, they fought on foot. No one ever brought horses into battle. The front line was composed of a "shield wall" or "battle hedge" of young, strong men carrying spears and shields. Behind them, archers with powerful long bows shot iron-tipped arrows. The Normans brought with them the most recent technology and ideas about warfare. The Norman knights fought on horseback and the ranks were divided into cavalry (the knights on horseback) and infantry (the foot soldiers). King Harold's army had just defeated his brother and the king of Norway in battle in the north of England, and had marched about 190 miles to reach Hastings. They were exhausted, but fought hard. They were no match for the Norman's superior military machine, though. King Harold took an arrow through the eye and died. By the end of the day, the English were defeated.

To see what it might have been like to fight in this historic battle, try the BBC's Battle of Hastings game.

For a huge amount of information about this important moment in English history, visit, the Battle of Hastings web site. 

William the Conqueror

William of Normandy was crowned William the First of England on Christmas Day, 1066. He was intelligent and ruthless. England was not subdued by the Battle of Hastings, and many areas offered serious resistance, especially in northern England where people were accustomed to the relative freedom of Norse laws. In fact, present day Northumberland and Yorkshire were known as "Danelaw" in those days. When William the Conqueror finally turned his attention to the northeast of England, his army laid waste to the entire area, destroying all the villages, burning crops, killing those who fought and driving others away. Finally, though, all of England fell under Norman rule.

To find out more about William the Conqueror, visit this BBC profile. 

For about 300 years after the Norman conquest, English was only spoken by the common people. French was the dominant language and virtually nothing was written in English. A few centuries after the Conquest, the Normans in England began to fight with their counterparts in France over land. So English became popular among nobility because it was seen as patriotic, but the language had changed greatly, incorporating many French words. For example, the words we use in English today for meat: pork, mutton and beef, come from the French words for those animals, porc, mouton and boeuf  because the people eating the meat were French-speaking Normans. But the words for the animals: pig, sheep and cow, retained their English roots, because the people tending the animals spoke English.   

For a good overview of  life after the Norman Conquest, visit Norman Rule after 1066 on the web site.

But What  Does All This Have to Do with Scotland?

Scotland was not conquered by the Normans. William the Conqueror tried to invade Scotland in 1072, but he was not successful. The border between Scotland and England was always in dispute and there were skirmishes, and sometimes outright battles, but the first few centuries following the Norman conquest were relatively peaceful for Scotland.

William the Conqueror's youngest son, Henry, became King Henry the First in 1100. He was the first English-born Norman king, and he married the daughter of  Malcolm Canmore, the king of Scotland. She was known as Good Queen Maud. One of Maud's younger brothers, David, was raised in the court of Henry the First, where he spoke French, learned Norman ways and made many Norman friends. Eventually, he married the widow of a great Norman lord who brought to her marriage huge tracts of  English land. David returned to Scotland and, in 1124, he became King David the First of Scotland.

David brought Norman customs and ideas to Scotland with him. He invited many European religious orders into Scotland and gave them vast tracts of land to support the abbeys they founded. To learn more about this, visit my web page, Religion in 12th Century Scotland.

King David also invited his friends, mostly younger sons of  Norman nobles, to come to Scotland with him. The Normans did not divide their lands among their children. The oldest son received all the land and any titles that went with it. This is called the rule of primogeniture. It ensured that estates were not broken up, but it also left younger sons without a means of making a living.  

How Did the Normans Change Scotland?

Twelfth century Scotland could hardly be called a country in the modern sense of the word. It was, in fact, a number of loosely connected regions mostly dominated by powerful chieftains who might be loyal to the king, or might openly rebel. Most of Scotland was not directly changed by the Normans at all. King David, like most monarchs of the time, did not live in one place, but travelled from great house to great house. However, the south eastern part of Scotland which is today known as the Borders was where he seemed to feel most at home and that was where the Normans would have the greatest impact. To learn more about this area, visit my web page, Where is Teviotdale? 

It's hard to think of Britain as a wilderness today, but in that time, it seems as if the southeast of Scotland was largely empty. We know, for example, that monks had founded an abbey near Melrose in the 8th century, but it was abandoned and the area had reverted to wilderness by the 12th century.  King David granted estates to his Norman friends in this area, where they established typical Norman  homes. Any people who belonged to the lands, neyfs was the Scottish term, were granted to the lords along with the land. These Norman lords could also acquire bondsmen, who became servants for life when a common person who had no other means of making a living swore an oath to become part of the household. In famine years, when crops failed and people had no other choice, many common people chose to become bondsmen rather than starve to death. 

Norman society was based on a very structured feudal system. Under the feudal system, everyone was bound to someone of a higher rank. The serfs (or neyfs) who worked the land were essentially slaves, bound to the lord who held that land. (All land, in fact, belonged to the king and was only granted to the nobleman who lived on it.) A lord might be bound to a noble of higher rank, and the highest lords swore allegiance directly to the king. Everyone gave a percentage of what they produced, their crops and animals, any wealth they made in the course of a year, to the person who ranked above them, so that a percentage of everything was, finally, given to the king. The things that were given were called tribute. Noblemen were also required to provide knights and soldiers to the king's army in wartime, according to their ability. Those who had no material wealth would be bound to provide days of labour to their overlords.Anyone might also be required to provide days of labour in addition to the tribute they paid. The entire society rested on this system of allegiance and tribute. Kings and overlords could also add special taxes to this system if they needed money for a war or to pay a ransom, but tribute was the main source of income for any king.

Scotland had a system of tribute before the Normans arrived, but it was never as structured or rigid as the feudal system. Also, because political alliance to the king was so shaky, it must have been very unpredictable. King David knew that the Normans would provide him with a more stable base, because their loyalty would be more secure and because their feudal system would give him regular income. David also began to modernize Scotland, setting up the first real towns, called royal burgs. (Pronounced "boroughs.") The first burgs were Berwick and Roxboro. These towns were the only place where trade with foreigners could be conducted. All the people who lived in the burgs were freemen, who owed allegiance to no one but the king himself. This system was designed to increase Scotland's trade with other countries and, not incidentally, provide the king with more income.  To find out more, visit the BBC's web page David I and the Impact of the Norman Conquest

The Normans who came to Scotland still spoke French. We know very little about how they were received by the common people who had been Christian for a few hundred years and spoke a version of English, called Scots, as their native language. This part of Scotland was surprisingly multi-cultural at the time, and perhaps it had always been assimilating people from other cultures. Many of the people in Northern England who escaped from terrible rage of William the Conqueror just decades before must have come north to Scotland, and many of the weavers involved in the growling woolen cloth industry were Flemish. In fact, the Scottish name Fleming means a person of Flemish origin. Scotland was always in contact with the Scandinavian countries, and there were also people of Danish and Norwegian background in most of Scotland. It may be that the people in this area accepted the Normans because they were used to outsiders. In any case, within just a few generations, the Anglo-Normans were completely integrated into Scottish society.

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