Friday, July 1, 2011


Photo: Alex Leith
Just to be clear; that’s “Normans” rather than Norman. For those who need to recalibrate (and everyone else) here’s a question: what do Lewes and Sicily have in common? Both obviously have a history of exporting dodgy people abroad: Tom Paine (seditious in France and the Americas) and the Cosa Nostra. There’s also a sense of separation from, and occasional superiority to, the country to their north. Do you deny it? However the answer on the card is the presence in both of Norman castles. We all know about 1066 but perhaps may be less informed about the Norman adventurers who terrorised the Mediterranean at the same time. Both Lewes and Sicily were subjugated by the Normans and have big stone towers to prove they lost.

Lately I’ve been wondering about the consequences of these invasions. In Sicily the Hauteville dynasty didn’t do too badly, turning chaos into a stable government which enhanced Sicilian prosperity for a couple of hundred years. Given that 1066 is so central in British history just what did the Normans do for us? Was it all the “Norman Yoke with foreign usurpers destroying our English ways?

It’s more intriguing because, like an England World Cup campaign, it could so easily have gone the other way. While the continentals possessed the quality strikers (lance-wielding, blood-curdling cavalry), the English had their traditional defensive hard men (in this case tooled-up with double-handed dane axes). Indeed if Wayne Rooney... sorry King Harold hadn’t had an awkwardly-timed away game at Stamford Bridge, William I might be remembered (if at all) as simply another French tourist who got a good kicking in Hastings.

It is clear that the Anglo-Saxon nobility had a rough ride post-Conquest. Their estates were removed and given to William-the-Conqueror’s buddies, such as Lewes’ William de Warenne. Many left the country. For the average Sussex peasant though, one wonders whether one feudal overlord would have been so different to another.  It’s clear that English standards of living hadn’t really recovered since the Romans left. One minute a cosmopolitan international empire, with indoor plumbing and wine; the next, intellectual decline, sharing huts with animals, and tepid beer. Mightn’t the Normans actually have improved things with their central authority, stone buildings and wine back on the shelves of the offie?

Perhaps so, but it can’t have been easy for the dyed-in-the-wool Rooks, what with those Up From Rouens literally lording it over them. Like DFLs a millennium later, the UFRs probably pissed people off with their poncy soft-furnishing shops and slick, metropolitan free magazines. French rather than Old English became the language du jour (though clearly not enough to stop my spell checker questioning “du jour”) and England was very much an occupied country. Increased central power meant both more efficient tax collection and a decline in the democratic structures of what had been a pretty sophisticated government. Next time you’re in town take a look at the Castle again. Is it the sort of thing you build with a contented population? I can’t help feeling it’s more in the “I’m in charge so don’t f#@k with me” vein. It wasnt only the toffs who dusted off their passports in the late 11th century.

Still, as we’re being told by our rulers today, short-term pain is the price of longer-term gain. And indeed, a mere 700 years after Norman hegemony established a coherent English state, there we were at the head of a global empire. Sometimes it just takes politicians with the courage to make the unpopular decisions and clear up the mess left by the last lot. We’ll all benefit in the end.

Now, which Norman were we talking about again?

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