Landmarks of the Normans
Throughout the long ages of English history there is no recorded incident that has so profoundly and so permanently influenced the course of all subsequent events as the decisive Battle of Senlac - commonly, but erroneously, called the Battle of Hastings - which was fought on Saturday, October 14, 1066, being the Festival of S. Calixtus the Pope. For on that bloody field, where the flower of Saxon manhood died around the standard of King Harold, and where fell many of the bravest and the noblest of the Norman invaders, one long historical epoch was brought to a close and the foundations of a still more notable period were laid in blood and in sacrifice.
It is not only interesting, but important, to reflect upon the very trifling circumstances that might have caused a tremendous difference in English history. Had William not been detained in Normandy by contrary winds and by other adverse conditions, his ships would have arrived off the English coast to find that a strong Saxon fleet, manned by capable and daring warriors, was in readiness to dispute his landing; and if an invasion had been successfully effected, he would have found Harold and his army awaiting him on the shore. Even as it was, when William arrived off the Sussex coast, on board the Mora, early in the morning of Thursday, September 28, 1066, having outstripped all the other ships, he was alone; and he would have been at the mercy of two or three determined opponents. But there were no defenders of the coast, the Saxon ships having put into port to re-victual and to repair after their long period of sentry duty in the English Channel; and William could in safety await the arrival of his fleet.
Then, his landing was not challenged; for Harold, with his army, had hastened to York to oppose Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, who, at the instigation of King Harold's treacherous brother, Tostig, had invaded the country to enforce a shadowy claim to the throne. The gigantic Norwegian king was defeated and slain. But the Norwegian invasion had disastrous results; for in order to repulse the enemy Harold had to leave the Sussex coast undefended, and absolutely at the mercy of a far more formidable foe.
The Norman army landed at Bulverhithe, not far from Pevensey, where once had stood the Roman city of Anderida, and where in after years arose the great Norman stronghold of Pevensey Castle. Watched, but not attacked, by the terrified inhabitants of the district, the Norman army moved along the coast to Hastings, where one of the portable wooden towers which William had brought with him was set up within the "motte-and-bailey" which was characteristic of the Norman strongholds that were erected before the invaders, after they became conquerors, had time to build the massive stone castles that sprang up in all parts of the country. At Hastings, as at Pevensey, a strongly fortified castle was afterwards constructed.
The news that William had landed was sent to King Harold with all possible speed; and it reached him while he was still at York, recovering from a wound which he had received in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. By forced marches the Saxon king hastened southwards to meet his formidable rival; but William, more prudent than Harald of Norway, was not to be surprised. Long before the Saxon army reached the neighbourhood of Hastings, where the Normans were harrying the countryside, news of its approach had been brought to William; and King Harold, finding that he could not overwhelm the Norman duke by the swiftness of his movements, occupied the hill of Senlac, a few miles from the Norman camp at Hastings.
William had vowed, if the victory should be his, to build a glorious monastery upon the scene of his greatest triumph; and this oath he fulfilled with lavish generosity. The High Altar of the great monastery which arose on the ground that had been so stoutly held by the Saxons stood on the spot that, according to tradition, had been occupied by the Saxon standards; for it was there that Harold and his brothers, Gurth and Leofwine, fought and died, surrounded by their loyal supporters.
The generosity with which William was determined to endow this abbey is borne out by the old story of his reply when the architect told him that there would not be an adequate water supply for the use of the monks.
"Work away!" he cried. "Water is of no account; for by the splendour of God, if I live there shall be more wine among the monks of Battle Abbey than there is water in the best convent of Christendom!"
Very little now remains of that once-stately abbey; but the ruins of the High Altar may still be seen, and in later times a noble home arose on the site of the old religious house. The massive and imposing gateway, restored in later times, but still true to the Norman style of architecture, stands as an impressive monument at the entrance to the village of Battle; and it is from that spot that every pious pilgrim to the Norman landmarks in England should begin his journey.
Before setting forth together as pilgrims to some of these landmarks, there is one point to be emphasised, for it is often ignored. This is, that although the Battle of Senlac was the culminating event in the Norman scheme for the occupation of England, it was by no means the first of the many moves by which the ambitious dukes of Normandy had sought to establish an ascendancy in the country. The first move was made in the year 1002, when Emma, the sister of Richard, duke of Normandy, and the great-aunt of William the Conqueror, became the wife of Ethelred "the Unraedig," commonly called the Unready. This fascinating but unscrupulous woman, who was known as Gemma Normanorum, came to her new home accompanied by a host of needy compatriots, who did everything in their power to secure their own advancement at the expense of the native Saxons. Immediately after Ethelred's death she consoled herself by becoming the wife of the Danish conqueror, Canute. While Canute lived, Emma was kept in order; but after his death she once more resumed her scheming policy, even sacrificing her own children by King Ethelred in order to gratify her ambition in embracing the cause of her children by Canute.
Indeed, according to the old chroniclers, she was the bane of the land from the time she set foot in England until she died, on March 14, 1052. She was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester.
Edward the Confessor, the only surviving son of King Ethelred and Emma, had lived as an exile in Normandy while Canute and his sons occupied the English throne and was more Norman than Saxon in tastes and sympathies. He habitually spoke Norman-French, and when he ascended the throne, in the year 1042, he very speedily showed his predilection by inviting hosts of Normans, upon whom he conferred the richest appointments, to come to him in England.
It was, indeed, upon a promise which was said to have been given by Edward while he was still living as an exile at the Norman court that William, the illegitimate son of the Norman duke who was known as Robert the Devil, based his shadowy claim to the English crown.
This slight digression was necessary in order to explain how it is that even the oldest portion of the great Abbey Church of St. Peter, better known as Westminster Abbey, bears traces of Norman influence in its architecture, although it was built before the Conquest, as a sepulchre for its pious founder, Edward the Confessor. Having secured his position in England by the Battle of Senlac, William pursued his way in a leisurely fashion to London; and at every point of strategic importance that he visited he established a "motte-and-bailey" stronghold, to protect his lines of communication in the hostile country through which he was advancing. Thus, at Dover, where a strong castle already stood - for Dover was an important place even in Roman times - were laid the foundations of what was destined to become one of the most famous of all the Norman castles.
Owing to the spiritless submission of the citizens of London, William was able to enter the city without striking a blow, although, owing to the demolition of London Bridge, he had to cross the Thames at Wallingford and approach from the north. Indeed, he encountered no more serious obstacle than the trunks of the trees which the courageous and patriotic Abbot of St. Albans had felled and thrown across his path as obstructions. St. Albans suffered severely for the temerity of its abbot; but the ancient church - now the cathedral of the diocese of St. Albans - escaped destruction, and contains several fine examples of Norman windows. Moreover, the great tower of the cathedral, built of Roman bricks from Verulamium, is as imposing an example of Norman architecture as one could see.
After his coronation at Westminster Abbey, on Christmas Day, 1066, William embarked upon the serious task of subjugating the country. It was this necessity which called into being the great castles, the ruins of which remain to this day. Norman castles, it should be remembered, were built upon a definite plan; and it will be found that they were most numerous, and most formidable, in those parts of the country which were most exposed to attack. The wild borderland, for example, was exposed to the forays of the Scots; and on the Welsh Marches, also, furious incursions were to be expected. Here a chain of castles sprang up, with stately Ludlow as its centre, where the Lords Warden of the Marches held their court.
Along the south and south-east coasts, again, strong castles were required to repulse possible invaders; and to meet this necessity arose, in addition to Dover, Hastings and Pevensey, which have already been mentioned, strongholds such as Arundel, Porchester and the impregnable Corfe Castle.
The approach to London was guarded by Rochester; and the city itself was defended by the great Tower of London, dating as a fortress from the time of the Romans, in which the White Tower is the best surviving English specimen of Norman architecture. Finally, scattered throughout the country, wherever a hostile population might be expected to give trouble, arose great overawing buildings, of which Colchester, Castle Hedingham, Castle Rising, Northampton, Castleton, Kenilworth, Lincoln and Oxford are typical examples.
Very skilful use was made of every natural advantage - a mound, a rocky crag, a promontory stretching into lake, river or sea would be seized upon by the builders. The utmost was made of such natural features, to ensure the buildings against surprise attacks, and to make them impregnable even when called upon to stand a prolonged siege.
, William was a firm believer in the efficacy of the heavy hand; and his treatment of the Norman nobles was but little less drastic than his oppression of the Saxon nobles and of the common people. When he appeared in England as an invader he was accompanied by an army of adventurers, many of whom had been induced to join the expedition by promises of rich rewards; and it was upon these men, from whom are descended many of the oldest and the proudest families in the country, that the lands of the dispossessed Saxons were generously conferred by the grateful Conqueror. As a condition of the grant of land there was usually a stipulation that the recipient should build and maintain a castle for the defence of the district, and that the owner should always be ready to punish disturbers of the peace, or to render knightly service to the king at the head of a band of armed retainers.
In effect, this was nothing more nor less than tenure by feudal service; but in England the feudal system never came to such perfection as it attained on the Continent, although at a later date the great barons maintained large retinues of servants and men-at-arms, and lived in almost regal pomp on their vast estates.
It is interesting, however, to note that many of the everyday surnames of England - such as Smith, Carpenter, Cooper, Groome, Butcher, Baker, Brewer, Wright, Driver, Butler, Archer, Bowman and many others - originated in the days when humble men commonly took their names from the trade they plied; for all these names, in their various forms, denote the services that the original bearers rendered in or about the home of some great nobleman, when the Normans or their kinsmen, the Plantagenets, ruled over England.
In addition to the military and domestic strong - holds which date from Norman times, there are in England very many cathedrals, churches, abbeys and other buildings which, wholly or partly, belong to the same period. Indeed, what may be broadly classified as Norman ecclesiastical architecture should claim the most careful attention of the historical pilgrim; for it is in the churches that most of the best-preserved specimens will be found.
One particularly interesting Norman landmark, however, stands in a class by itself; and, happily, it is still in a state of perfect preservation. This is Westminster Hall, which was built by King William the Second, commonly called Rufus; it is the most perfect surviving example of Norman architecture in England and little changed since it was completed, in the year 1099, about a year before the Red King was killed while hunting in the New Forest. Recently, when the roof of the hall had to be repaired, many of the original beams were found to be perfectly sound; and so massive were the oak trees from which they were made, that it was very difficult to find new timber to replace the beams which had become rotten with age.
Among the great ecclesiastical buildings in which choice specimens of Norman architecture will be found, pride of place must be given to Canterbury and Winchester cathedrals, while most of the other cathedrals in England contain Norman work.
When searching for traces of Norman ecclesiastical architecture, which will be found not only in the great cathedrals, but also in many churches in small towns and in villages, attention should always be paid to the doors and the windows. The most typical and the most characteristic form of Norman doorways and windows is what is known as the rounded arch - a style which, with its variants, is remarkable for its solidity. The pure and original rounded arch was semicircular; but in later examples the style varied considerably, and appeared in the form of stilted, horseshoe and segmental arches. The most recent development of the rounded arch was heavily recessed - that is to say, it was constructed of many concentric rows of masonry, each of which had a slightly shorter diameter than the one above it.
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