Norman Conquest

How did William Duke of Normandy successfully rule England?

When William the Conqueror became King of England on Christmas Day 1066 his fight to control England had just begun. For the remainder of his reign he had to put down revolts and reorganise the way in which the country was run. Several of the methods he used are listed below: -

Putting down rebellions

After the Norman invasion the lands owned by the Saxons was taken over by the Normans. Many of the Saxon Earls fled and went into exile. While some areas submitted to William's rule many did not and William had to deal with Saxon resistance. The map below show some of the resistance that the new king had to deal with. The most serious was an invasion by the Scottish king Malcolm III who invaded Northumbria in 1070.

Based on map from Atlas of British History, G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville

Giving lands to the Barons (the Feudal System)

When William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066 he introduced a new kind of feudal system into Britain. William confiscated the land in England from the Saxon lords and allocated it to members of his own family and the Norman lords who had helped him conquer the country. These people were known as tenants-in-chief. Unlike the older Anglo-Saxon form of feudalism these people did not own the land because the ownership remained with William the Conqueror himself. The land allocated to a tenants-in-chief was known as a manor and tended to be dispursed across the country rather than being one big area. The tenant-in-chief had to provide for himself and his family and to support a number of knights. To do this the lord sub-let his land to other lords lower on the social ladder. At the bottom the common people worked on the land growing crops and raising animals.

The tenants-in-chief did not get the land for free, they rented it from the king in exchange for services. If the services were not provided the tenant-in-chief would be removed, by force if necessary. This was an important change to the older Anglo-Saxon form of feudalism as it meant William could keep control of his land as bad tenants could be removed.

Castle building

William the Conqueror and the Norman barons began to build hundreds of castles in areas of England that they took control of. In many cases the Saxons were used as the work force to build the castles. These early castles were mainly built from wood and are known as Motte and Bailey castles. At the heart of the castle was the motte which was a large mound of earth surrounded by a ditch on top of which was a wooden tower. At the base of the motte was the bailey which was an area surrounded by a bank of earth and a ditch. Around the top of the bank was a wooden wall or palisade. The bailey had enough space for living quarters for the Baron and his attendants, a chapel, tradesmen's workshops such as blacksmiths and animals as well. A strong gatehouse was usually the only entrance to the castle.

Based on map from Atlas of British History, G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville

This picture shows a reconstruction of a motte and bailey castle. Some castles had water-filled ditches to provide extra defences.
Click here for more information and to walk around a virtual motte and bailey castle

In 1078 William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a huge keep at the castle in London. Under the direction of Gundulf, a castle builder from Normandy, the tower known as the White Tower or Tower of London was built. The size of the castle must have been greater than any building the citizens of London would have seen before and as William may have hoped probably struck them with awe. Although generally square in construction the White Tower has a circular turret to the north-east that has a circular staircase inside it and to the south-east there is a semicircular apse that contains a chapel. The southern side of the castle would of had a small tower at the entrance but this has been removed and not shown in the reconstruction at present.

The Domesday Book

In December of 1085 William the Conqueror ordered the survey of his lands in Britain. The survey was given the name Domesday Book possibly because of its similarity to the Last Judgement of Christ, or Doomsday. A detailed record of ownership of land, types of land, numbers of people and numbers of animals was undertaken. Details were not just required for that moment in time, but at the time of Edward the Confessor (1065) and at the time when the land was granted by William himself. Each shire was required to obtain and collate the information and any disputes were heard in a court with a jury of equal numbers of Englishmen and Normans. The survey was written up into two volumes and was held at the Winchester Treasury.

Whether this was the first survey of its type is unknown, but it is the first recorded survey we have copies of. The reasons why the survey was taken is not known either. After the Conquest the allocation of land had probably been chaotic and the survey could have been a method of sorting out the confusion and used to prevent further disputes. Knowing how much workable land and working people there are would have also been useful for taxation purposes.


1066 Oct 14 Battle of Hastings
   William the Conqueror and Harold II met in battle at Hastings. Although Harold had the superior position on the battlefield his tactics failed and he was killed. This left England open for William to continue with his invasion plans.
Dec 25 William the Conqueror becomes King of England
   William the Conqueror was coronated as King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of 1066.
1067 Chepstow Castle begun
   Construction of Chepstow Castle is begun.
A castle at Norwich is begun
   A motte and bailey castle is built at Norwich.
Construction of Wallingford Castle
   A castle at Wallingford was built in this year. It would have been a motte and bailey type castle.
Construction of Winchester Castle
   Construction of a wooden castle was begun at Winchester.
Arundel Castle granted to Roger de Montgomery
   William the Conqueror granted Arundel Castle to Roger de Montgomery.
1068 Warwick Castle built on William's orders
   William the Conqueror ordered the building of Warwick Castle.
Northern English move to Scotland
   Many of the northern English lords escaped to Scotland and the court of Malcolm III when it was clear that William had control of the country.
Construction of Nottingham Castle
   William and the Normans started construction of the castle at Nottingham. This would have been a wooden building. It was built on the high ground above the town using the step slope down to the river Leen as a defence.
Feb Exeter falls to William
   Although William had defeated Harold at Hastings, Harold's mother Gytha and her forces still had not submitted to William's rule. They refused to pay the taxes that William demanded and held out at Exeter until their defences were broken. William had to take heavy casualties in the confrontation. William was still collecting the land tax known as Danegeld. After the city fell, William had a castle constructed to keep control of the population there.
May 11 Matilda is crowned Queen
   William brought his wife Matilda of Flander to England to crown her Queen of England. Matilda's coronation took place at Westminster Abbey and the ceremony was performed by the archbishop of York.
1069 Danish fought off at Sandwich
   An attack by a Danish invasion fleet led by Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark was fought off by a garrison stationed at a castle at Sandwich. Sandwich was an important port on the south coast. The location has now been found and the site is being investigated.
Construction of Worcester Castle
   Land from the nearby Cathedral was used to build a new Norman motte and bailey castle on the bank of the River Severn.
Dec The North is devastated by the Normans
   William's forces defeat rebels in the North and Midlands.
1070 Castles at Chester and Stafford begun
   William continues his castle building spree at both Chester and Stafford.
Castle at Old Sarum
   Using the prehistoric hill fort's defensive position to good use, the Normans built a new castle on the Old Sarum site. William the Conqueror paid off his soldiers here in this year.
Malcolm raids Northern England
   The Scottish king attacked towns in the north of England.
Building work at Chepstow
   William Fitz Osbern built the hall at Chepstow Castle.
Jun Hereward the Wake sacks Peterborough Abbey
   As part of a revolt against the new Norman invaders, Hereward the Wake sacks the abbey at Peterborough.
1071 William puts down the revolt
   The rebels Hereward the Wake and Morcar on the Isle of Ely were attacked and defeated by William the Conqueror.
Dudley Castle Construction
   After Eadwin, the Earl of Mercia, was killed in the revolt against William his castle and lands at Dudley were given to William's Norman followers.
Richmond Castle construction
   The construction of Richmond Castle began around this time by Alan Rufus, the cousin of the Duke of Brittany.
Bangor Cathedral destroyed by the Normans
   A Norman army attacked the northern Welsh town of Bangor and destroyed the Cathedral there.
1072 At Durham, another castle is ordered
   William orders the castle as Durham to be built.
Treaty of Abernethy
   Treaty between William the Conqueror and Malcolm III of Scotland. In this treaty Malcolm paid homage to William.
Jun William leads an army into Scotland
   It is possible that William the Conqueror was planning to attack King Malcolm to prevent him protecting Edgar the Aetheling and to stop him advancing into the north of England. The treaty 'Peace of Abernethy' brought a solution to the situation where Malcolm agreed to become William's vassal and to expel Edgar.
1073 Edgar the Aetheling attempts to take the English throne
   Edgar joins forces with King Malcolm in Scotland and King Philippe I of France.
1075 Construction of Windsor Castle
   Construction of Windsor castle started by William the Conqueror.
Chepstow Castle passes to the crown
   Roger Fitz Osbern joined an unsuccessful uprising against the king and lost. The castle then passed to the crown.
1078 Work starts on the White Tower
   Gundulf began work on the White Tower, the Tower of London.
1080 Colchester castle begun
   To defend the estuaries of Essex against attacks from the Danes William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a new castle at Colchester.
Construction of Lewes Castles
   Work on a castle at Lewes began in 1080 and lasted possibly to around 1100.
1081 William tours south Wales
   William the Conqueror visited South Wales and St. David's. He met Rhys ap Tewdwr, the ruler of the area and allowed him to remain in control of the region for a yearly sum of money.
Cardiff Castle construction
   William the Conqueror may have ordered the creation of a castle at Cardiff during his tour of Southern Wales. The first castle on the site would have been a motte and bailey type and it was built on the site of existing Roman fortifications.
1085 Dec 25 Domesday Book
   At the Christmas Council William ordered the creation of survey of property with their values and populations county by county covering most of England. Commissioners were sent all over England, apart from the far north, to make a record of the population, value, state and ownership of the land. The book consisted of two volumes and was completed by 1088.
1086 Aug 1 Oath of Salisbury
   William the Conqueror called a meeting at Old Sarum where he invited his most important vassals and tenants-in-chief in England to swear allegiance to him. The oath is now known as the Oath of Salisbury.

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