How Norman rule reshaped England … England is indelibly European- The Economist

How Norman rule reshaped England – England is indelibly European

THE Norman conquest of England, led exactly 950 years ago by William, Duke of Normandy (“the Conqueror”), was the single greatest political change England has ever seen. It was also very brutal. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was stripped of its assets, and many of its members suffered the humiliation of being forced to work on land they had once owned. Even today, conquest by the French is still a touchy subject in some circles.     

Nigel Farage, the on-and-off leader of the UK Independence Party, is known to wear a tie depicting the Bayeux tapestry, a 70-metre long piece of embroidery depicting the event, to remind Britons of “the last time we were invaded and taken over”. The tapestry is peppered with severed limbs and heads of vanquished Englishmen. Other supporters of Brexit—Britain’s exit from the European Union—use the language of the conquest to describe the nation’s “domination” by faceless EU institutions. Academics have held similar opinions. “[F]rom the Englishman’s point of view, the Norman conquest was a catastrophe,” argued Rex Welldon Finn of Cambridge University in 1971.

But, while the blood and guts were horrifying, the conquest also did a lot of good. It transformed the English economy. Institutions, trade patterns and investment all improved. It brought some of the British Isles into European circles of trade (“Brentry”, if you will) and sparked a long economic boom in England which made the country comparatively rich. The conquest and its aftermath also set a wealthy south apart from a poor north, a geographical divide that continues to this day. From those tumultuous decades on, England was indelibly European—and a lot stronger for it. The Norman conquest made England.

The reasons for the invasion were complex. Early in 1066 Edward the Confessor, then king of England, had died heirless, sparking a crisis of succession. His brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, took over. But Harold’s claim to the throne was weak and he faced resistance, especially in the north of the country. William, Duke of Normandy, just across the English Channel, reckoned that he was the rightful heir: according to William of Poitiers, a chronicler, Edward had said that he wanted the young William to succeed him.

The Bayeux tapestry shows what happened next. In September William invaded from France with an enormous army. At the Battle of Hastings, on the southern coast of England, Harold was killed and his body mutilated (one account describes how a Norman knight “liquefied his entrails with a spear”). William went on to be crowned on Christmas Day, 1066.

He celebrated his coronation by going hunting and hawking, but then got down to business. The Anglo-Saxon system of government and economy was razed to the ground. The lands of over 4,000 English lords passed to fewer than 200 Norman and French barons. The English were removed from high governmental and ecclesiastical office. By 1073 only two English bishops were left, according to Hugh Thomas of the University of Miami.

The best source for assessing the impact of the Norman conquest is the Domesday Book, a survey of English wealth commissioned by William in 1085. For 13,418 places under William’s rule, Domesday Book contains data both on who the owner of the estate was and how valuable it was as measured by how much “geld”, or land tax, it could yield in a year. For some counties, it also tallied the population, the amount of livestock and even the ploughs. Its thoroughness suggested it could have been used for a final reckoning on the day of judgment—hence the name. Its 2m words of Latin, originally inscribed on sheepskin parchment in black and red ink, were recently digitised by researchers at the University of Hull.

Respondents to the survey were generally asked to give answers corresponding to three time periods: 1066, 1086 and an intermediate period shortly after 1066, which reflects when the manor was first granted to its existing owner. This makes it possible to perform a before-and-after analysis of the conquest.

The invasion certainly caused damage in the short term. In Sussex, where William’s army landed, wealth fell by 40% as the Normans sought to assert control by destroying capital. From Hastings to London, estates fell in value wherever the Normans marched. One academic paper from 1898 suggested that certain manors in the counties around London were much less valuable by 1070 than they had been in 1066. Despite this initial damage, however, the conquest ended up helping the English economy. Wonks have long supposed that immigration tends to boost trade: newcomers are familiar with their home markets and like to export there. The Normans were invaders, not immigrants, but Edward Miller and John Hatcher of Cambridge University conclude that the “generations after 1066 saw a progressive expansion both of the scale and the value of…external commerce.” English wool, in particular, was popular on the continent.

Brentry also helped the financial system develop. Jews arrived at William’s invitation, if not command, and introduced a network of credit links between his new English lands and his French ones. Unhindered by Christian usury laws, Jews were the predominant lenders in England by the 13th century. The discovery of precious metals from central European mines also helped get credit going. Jews settled in towns where there was a significant mint. England was still a violently anti-Semitic place, though, and its Jews were expelled by the 14th century.

The Normans took some policy decisions that would meet with the approval of modern economists: at a time of radical uncertainty, they ramped up infrastructure spending. Within 50 years every English cathedral church and most big abbeys had been razed to the ground, and rebuilt in a new continental style, says George Garnett of Oxford University. He points out that no English cathedral retains any masonry above ground which dates from before the conquest.

New castles and palaces came too. A book on churchbuilding published in 1979 documents a sharp increase in new projects in the 12th century, leading to an eventual peak of new starts around 1280. All these changes helped the economy along. Domesday Book suggests that, contrary to popular belief, the English economy had fully recovered by 1086. Data for some estates can be spotty: but a conservative reading of the book shows that the aggregate wealth of England barely changed in the two decades following Brentry. Taken at face value, total wealth actually increased. Of the 26 counties for which there are decent data, half actually rose in value.

Things only got better. Real GDP growth in 1086-1300 was probably two to three times what it was in the pre-conquest period. GDP per person grew strongly, too, perhaps from £1.70 in 1086 (in 1688 prices) to £3.30 by 1300. Mr Thomas suggests that productivity may have improved. To fund the infrastructure heavier taxes had to be levied on peasants, which “forced them to work harder”.

“In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion”

People had more money, and they wanted to spend it. According to a paper by John Langdon and James Masschaele, prior to the 12th century only a very small number of fairs and markets can be documented. About 60 markets are mentioned in Domesday Book. But traders and suppliers bloomed as the economy expanded: around 350 markets existed by the end of the 12th century.

The rapid commercialisation of the English economy had profound effects on workers. Slaves, a significant minority of the population before the invasion, were freed: in Essex, their number fell by a quarter in 1066-86. Lanfranc of Pavia, William’s appointee as archbishop of Canterbury, opposed the export of slaves, finds Mr Thomas; Christian thinkers tended to have “mild qualms” about slavery. By the 12th century, it had almost completely ended.

Labour became more specialised, and more people became self-employed or worked for wages. The share of the population living in towns rose from 10% in 1086 to 15-20% by the turn of the 14th century (London’s population soared). Over 100 new towns were founded in 1100-1300; the population of England jumped from 2.25m to 6m.

Though the country as a whole fared well, not every part of it did. The conquest was longer-lasting and more brutal in the north. People in places like Northumbria and York did not consider themselves English, let alone French (their allegiances were more with the Scots and Scandinavians). So they launched a series of rebellions shortly after the Normans took power.

William showed no mercy in crushing them. His campaigns came to be known as the “harrying of the north”. According to Orderic Vitalis, another chronicler, on his deathbed William recalled what he had done. “In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion…Herds of sheep and cattle [were] slaughtered [and] I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation.”

According to Domesday Book, in 1066 estates in southern England were somewhat richer than northern ones. But with Brentry, the gap jumped: by 1086 southern estates were four times as wealthy. The scale of the destruction was astonishing. A third of manors in northern counties were marked as “waste”. In Yorkshire, the county hardest hit, 60% of manors were considered to be at least “partially waste”, while total wealth fell by 68%. The population of York, the city at the centre of the harrying, probably halved. In 1086, no part of the country north of present-day Birmingham had an income per household higher than the national average. The country grew more unequal: the Gini coefficient of English manors rose from 64 before the invasion to 71 after (a Gini coefficient of 100 would mark perfect inequality). In terms of average estate wealth, the richest county was seven times richer than the poorest in 1066, but 18 times richer in 1086.

The north may always have been destined for relative poverty: it has poorer land and a worse climate; it is farther from markets. But economic history shows that long-ago events can leave lasting scars. William’s depradations could well explain, in part, the northern poverty that gives modern Britain Europe’s highest regional inequality. And, almost a millennium later, descendants of the conquerors still enjoy disproportionate privilege; Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, Davis, finds that students with Norman surnames from Domesday are still over-represented at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. So it may not be surprising that the regions which suffered worst in the conquest were more likely to have voted to throw off the modern Norman yoke in the Brexit referendum. But expect no economic good to come from it.

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