Before we even consider what we think is the correct answer, we must first understand the definition of a revolution. I found a few definitions which could work well, but I found the Cambridge dictionary definition to be the most appropriate: a change in the way a country is governed, usually to a different political system and often using violence or war. I have broken this down into four separate changes: cultural, societal, political, and economic changes. I think that the Norman conquest was a real revolution as shown by the points below.
There were many cultural changes that occurred following the Norman Conquest, but I believe the two main changes were international relations and ’s role in the coming centuries and language. The conquest broke ’s links with Scandinavia, as they left settlers in in the 9th century after raiding it for many years and also from conquering eastern . European influence had already been brought over to after people from Saxony, north west Germany, migrated to , hence Anglo-Saxon, in the 5th and 6th centuries. The eventual Norman conquest of ensured full European influence in as the Normans took control as trade would have only been to and from Scandinavia as they had the closest connection to each other, but after the conquest, trade would have expanded to areas across Europe. would also experience the increased use of writing in government. While the Anglo-Saxons had written a few things down, the Anglo-Norman government increased it substantially. was also brought closer to events in France as they had been invaded by a state closely connected with France, which meant that it would be brought closer to events in France. This led to the Angevin Empire, the Hundred Years War, and the complicated relationship between and France which lasted for nearly the entire millennium. Before 1066, was under the influence of the Viking kings of Scandinavia and thought to be for hundreds of years more, as they had taken control of large chunks of the Isles. After the conquest, had changed forever.
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Language was also a huge change in as it separated the Norman’s upper class French from the Anglo-Saxon’s lower class English. This led to there being French words implemented into the English language and also a mix of the two. This is where we see the peculiar spelling of ‘hwaenne’, ‘hwaer’ and ‘hwaet’ become the more familiar words of ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘what’. As the Normans were in power, words relating to power, like ‘government’, ‘judge’, ‘castle’, ‘crown’, ‘royal’, ‘law’ were of Norman-French origin, but less graceful words like ‘king’ and ‘rules’ come from Saxon origin. Even though words from Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon mixed together, there was still a huge disparity in how they would speak as the Normans were in the upper class and the Anglo-Saxons were in the lower class. This is easily noticeable as the Normans would speak a much posher form of English, for example, they would say ‘enter into a chamber’, rather than ‘come into a room. As the Normans had plenty of influence from other European countries, they knew how to cook properly, unlike the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons did not differentiate between the animal and the cooked meat that became of it, as they were still called ‘cow’, ‘pig’, and ‘sheep’, but after the conquest the cooked meat changed to ‘beef’, ‘pork’ and ‘mutton’.
’s society was significantly altered by William’s new measures. For example the introduction of the Domesday Book. The Domesday Book was made to find out how much tax was needed to collect following the conquest and the giving out of new estates and titles by the king to his loyal followers. The book revealed William’s total reshaping of land ownership and power in . It was the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken in any medieval kingdom and is full of statistics such as the revelation that 90% of the population lived in the countryside and 75% of the people were serfs (labourers tied to a landowner). The feudal system was a consequence of the Domesday Book and clearly set out the levels of society. At the top of this hierarchy was the monarch. They owned all the land in and gave it out to nobles for their peasants to work, who in return had to give military service and show loyalty when needed. If a noble had a large amount of land, he could rent it out to a lesser noble and give protection, shelter and, food, in exchange for homage and military service. These lesser nobles would have peasants to work the land for them and the more important nobles creating a hierarchy of land ownership.
The status of women in Anglo-Saxon had been quite high as they had the opportunity to own land, but William changed this, so they had fewer roles in life. The land of Anglo-Saxon elites, who died in the battle of Hastings against William, had their land immediately given to Franco-Norman nobles. Those who had survived had the chance to keep their power and lands if they offered fealty to William in perpetuity, but many rebelled against him, so he removed almost all of the Anglo-Saxon nobility and replaced them with loyal men from Europe. As more and more European lords gained power in , more and more Anglo-Saxons were relegated to lower social classes and treated as inferiors. This is shown by their jobs, as Anglo-Saxons had low level jobs like bakers, millers, and shoemakers, while Normans had a skill trade like painters, tailors or merchants. Of the 1,400 tenants-in-chiefs in Anglo-Saxon , only two were in that position by 1086. The power of earls was reduced after Anglo-Saxon rebellions as William had taken their lands, wealth, and influence away from them. To make sure that their subjects were under control, William built many castles to secure his rule and gave them to Norman nobility to rule over areas themselves. William also reorganised the church in . He brought over men from France to be bishops and abbots and he built monasteries and cathedrals. By 1087, 11 of 15 bishops were Norman, and only one of the other four was English. William also reduced slavery as the Normans though it was against the teachings of the church.
The main political changes that experienced after the Norman Conquest were William’s aim to unite the country and how the royal court and government differed compared to the previous kings. Harold Godwinson of Wessex was the de facto ruler of before the Conquest, but was still technically split up into seven kingdoms: Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria, each vying for power over the others. After the conquest, William had united all of , but keeping control of these areas was difficult for him. This is shown most clearly in Northumbria. Following the rebellions in 1067 and 1068, William spent the winter of 1069-70, hunting down rebels, burning crops, killing livestock, and destroying farming equipment. His most impactful act was salting the ground which was used for growing crops, which resulted in a devastating famine. It would take over a century for the region to recover.
The royal court and government became more centralised, more so than in any other kingdom in Europe thanks to the holding of land and resources by only a relatively few Norman families. As only a few Norman families held land in both and Normandy/France, it meant that they had much greater power over their counterparts. Although William distributed land to loyal supporters, they did not typically receive any political power with their land. In a physical sense, the government was not centralised because William still did not have a permanent residence, preferring to move around his kingdom and regularly visit Normandy. Anglo-Saxon had a highly organised central and local government and an effective judicial system. William retained these and used them often, shown by his coronation oath of continuing in the English royal tradition. In all of the common courts and the king’s court, the common law of continued to be used. New laws were still introduced, such as ‘forest law’, where game animals and their forest habitats were protected. Breakers of this law where offenders could expect to be blinded or mutilated if caught. There were also laws to ensure the Normans did not abuse their power, such as unjustified killing of non-rebels or for personal gain. There was also the introduction of trial by combat, where one would fight to defend their innocence, and if they won, they would be considered right.
The smooth running of the economy was arguably the most essential thing William had to do, as it meant that he could keep the population happy and if he wanted, he could spend money to wage wars. The thing that he spent the greatest amount of money on was building castles to control the population. Initially, he built many Motte and Bailey castles and improved the basic designs of the Anglo-Saxons. The main features of a Motte and Bailey castle were: the main gate, which held a drawbridge, which could be lifted or lowered over a large ditch, which encompassed the entire area and was the first line of defence. The second line of defence was the palisade, a wall of wooden planks with one or two watchtowers on either side of the castle, protecting the inside. The interior was made up of many buildings, for example, workshops, stables, barracks, living areas, a hall, and a well. A large bridge called the flying bridge was the only access point to the keep, which was situated on a scarp, a large mound of earth, which allowed the keep to be on high ground and guards were able to see long distances over relatively flat land. The keep itself was quite tall, defended by palisades and a small ditch, called a motte. Over time, these motte and bailey castles would be upgraded to stone castles, which held significantly more power than a largely wooden structure.
The more motte and bailey and stone castles William built, the more he would tax the residents of his kingdom. He specifically taxed peasants the most and taxed them in money and/or food. The harsh tax forced the peasants to work harder as it depended on their survival, which boosted the English economy increased the total wealth of , and made wealthier compared to other countries in Europe. One specific area which greatly increased the economy of after the conquest was trade. Before the conquest, had some trade with Scandinavia, but as this region went into decline in the 11th century and because the Normans had contacts across Europe ( was not the only place they conquered, for example, Italy in 1053), trade with the continent greatly increased. Traders also relocated from Europe to places with low import tax. Places like , Southampton and Nottingham attracted many french merchants and included other groups such as Jewish merchants. Many goods went through the English channel, for example, English wool was exported to Flanders, and wine was imported from France.
Even though there is much evidence to suggest that the Norman conquest was indeed a revolution, there is evidence which disagrees with this. There was still a monarch and the country was still ruled the same way like every European medieval country as there was a power hierarchy and some form of the feudal hierarchy existed pre-conquest, but William was the first to expand and systematise the idea. The national ideology did not change as there were still disparities between people in terms of money and feudalism (the dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants were forced to live on their lord's land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, in exchange for military protection) was still the dominant way of life in medieval Europe. This is a clear difference from what is arguably the most well known revolution ever, the Russian Revolution, and the Norman Conquest. This is because Russia’s ideology went from authoritarian (ruled by a single person) to communist (where property is owned by the people and they contribute and receive based on their ability and needs). There is also the argument that revolutions only happen from the inside of a country and not because of an invasion. Another reason why people might not call it a revolution is because nearly all historians consider the change in power as a conquest, not a revolution. All of these reasons clearly indicate that the Norman Conquest does not appear to be able to be classed as a real revolution.
Although it may be argued that the Norman Conquest was not a revolution as a monarchy remained the ruler of , this does not mean that it can't be called a revolution, as the definition for a revolution is, ‘a radical change of an entire system, usually by war, resulting in a change of the way of life of the people involved’. This can be explained by the Norman conquest as the system of feudalism was introduced, albeit not incredibly radical, but radical enough to be considered a revolution. The Normans gained control of after the Battle of Hastings and the aftermath definitely did change the way of life for the Anglo-Saxon people. William changed the country through cultural, social, political, and economic amendments, which meant the country was almost entirely restructured. Using this information, I believe that the Norman conquest was indeed a revolution.