Norman Arrival

A new England, a new Scotland

William the Conqueror was a child of Danish imperialism. He was the direct descendant of the Viking warlord Rollo, who had been granted Normandy in 911 by the French king as a protection against other Viking raiders. However, William’s invasion need not have concerned the Celtic-speaking regions of Britain. It was the English throne that he claimed and won at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and none other.

To secure the support of his barons for an enterprise which they regarded as beyond the bounds of feudal duty, William had to promise great rewards to any who joined him. Rather than merely seize England’s crown and revenues, he visited on the Saxon aristocracy and church possibly the greatest theft of wealth in Europe’s pre-revolutionary history. In the years after the conquest, some 95 per cent of England’s productive land was confiscated and transferred to the Norman aristocracy and church.

William’s policy was tactical. As he marched across England, he carefully avoided London, negotiating with the City’s aldermen and merchants to leave their wealth and liberties intact. He promised, ‘I will not suffer any man to do you any wrong.’ The rest of England enjoyed no such generosity. The slightest sign of opposition was suppressed. Rebellions in East Anglia and the north, said the chronicle, saw William ‘yielding to his worst impulses, setting no bounds to his fury’. One result was the ‘harrying of the north’ begun in 1069. The later Domesday Book indicated that 75 per cent of the north-eastern population of England was killed, starved or driven from its land.

The response of the Scots and Welsh was initially ambivalent. Malcolm III, slayer of Macbeth, was married to Margaret, sister of Edgar the Atheling, rightful claimant to Harold’s English throne. Malcolm had been raised in London, and when Margaret arrived in Scotland she brought English customs and religious practices to the Scottish court. She also rebuilt the monastery of Iona. After the Battle of Hastings, Edgar had fled north to join his sister, meaning that Scotland was now harbouring a rival to the Conqueror’s throne.

After five years, and under pressure from belligerent courtiers, Malcolm in 1071 threw caution to the winds. Relying on arousing northern opposition to William’s monarchy, he led a Scottish army south over the Lothian border, demanding nothing less than the throne for his brother-in-law, Edgar. An angry William promptly invaded Scotland and forced Malcolm to pay him homage at Abernethy, near Perth.

Malcolm died in another raid south in 1093 and there followed a quarter-century of internecine strife, as Scotland fought over who should be its ruler. Malcolm’s most damaging bequest to his country was to have nine sons, all ambitious for kingship. Not until 1124 could the Norman-educated ninth son, David I (r.1124–53), attain the one prerequisite for success among Scottish monarchs, survival. He was to rule Scotland for thirty years roughly coterminous with the reign of Henry I of England (r.1100–1135).

David’s pragmatism recalled that of Hywel Dda: at all costs to avoid war with England. He had been brought up in Henry’s court said William of Malmesbury, ‘with his manners polished from the rust of Scottish barbarity’. His domestic policy was one of Norman assimilation, inviting Norman courtiers north to take baronial land in Scotland and in effect to become its aristocracy. A favourite was Walter FitzAlan, whose father had been steward to the bishops of Dol in Brittany. FitzAlan was granted much of Renfrewshire and other estates and adopted the name of Steward from his family’s Breton occupation. The later spelling of the house of Stuart was a French innovation of Mary Queen of Scots, there being no ‘w’ in French.

David thus pre-empted the emergence of an indigenous Lowlands ruling class. Where the old Scots court had probably spoken Gaelic (or possibly Pictish), it now spoke French, though the capital was moved from Scone south to Edinburgh in English-speaking Lothian. New bishoprics were founded, with monasteries at Kelso and Melrose, David adamantly refusing to bring his church under the authority of York. Fifteen royal burghs were established, with the right to hold markets and promote trade. The Lowlands became a miniature England in what historians have called the Davidian revolution.

Old habits died hard. When England’s politics were destabilised by the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, David’s successor, William, sought to seize territorial advantage by invading Northumbria. He was roundly defeated by Henry II at the Battle of Alnwick in 1174 and forced to sign the Treaty of Falaise. This put Scotland in formal homage to the English crown and its clergy under the Archbishop of Canterbury. English garrisons were placed in castles at Roxburgh, Berwick, Jedburgh, Stirling and Edinburgh. The treaty was revoked when Richard I came to the English throne, but it foretold a historical pattern of Scottish recklessness provoking English overreaction.

Scotland remained a disparate territory. The Lowland south-east was Normanised, but the Highlands and the western isles remained lands – and languages – apart. The islands intermittently embraced Man, old Dalriada, Skye and the Hebrides, but were contested by Irish-Norse kings. The half-Norse, half-Irish ruler Somerled (d.1164) in the twelfth century established the kingdom and lordship of Argyll and the Isles with legendary magnificence. When Scotland finally gained sovereignty over the Isles in the fifteenth century, Somerled’s MacDonald family retained their overlordship. A reputed half million Scots claim MacDonald as their genetic forebear.

The rape of Wales

Scotland under the Normans at least acquired the foundations of a ruling establishment. Wales did not. Its kingdoms had cohered into four, Gwynedd in the north, Powys in the east, Deheubarth (Dyfed) in the south-west and Glamorgan in the south-east. Their kings saw them as independent monarchies, even if a Rhodri Mawr or a Hywel Dda had occasionally contrived to lead them as one. Wales was not ruled as a united realm and its fragmentation could hardly have been regarded by the Conqueror as a threat. But, like the Romans, he saw Wales as too close to home for comfort.

The Conqueror needed two things of Wales: a security zone to contain Wales’s lawless interior and land to bestow on his barons. Both were obtained by establishing the so-called Welsh Marches, the kingdoms encircling ancient Gwynedd to the south and east. William duly granted three ‘Marcher lordships’ to his closest allies. Hugh d’Avranches was made Earl of Chester, Roger de Montgomerie Earl of Shrewsbury and William FitzOsbern Earl of Hereford. There was no single governor over the Marches. Each lord was granted so-called palatinate powers, with authority ‘sicut regale’, like a king. It was a licence for territorial aggrandisement and anarchy.

FitzOsbern built a magnificent castle at Chepstow at the mouth of the Wye and advanced west, occupying Caerleon and the old Welsh kingdom of Gwent before seizing the entirety of Glamorgan. He died in 1071, but his son Roger joined a Midlands rebellion against William, which led to him being stripped of his lordship. It took another decade for Norman control to cross south Wales to the extremity of Pembroke. Here the Normans resettled large numbers of Flemings over the course of the twelfth century, in part to deter Irish raids. The Landsker Line across Pembrokeshire still marks the boundary of this settlement, indicated in English place names to its south.

In mid-Wales, Roger de Montgomerie advanced into the upper Severn valley and beyond, penetrating as far as Ceredigion and seizing land for his family and friends as he went. In the north, Hugh of Chester moved along the coast to Anglesey, his cousin Robert of Rhuddlan reaching Caernarvon in 1081. Here the ancient Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was never going to submit lightly and conflict was persistent. Hugh earned himself the unflattering epithets of the Chester Lupus (wolf) and the Fat Hunter (Gros Veneur). The terms were commemorated by his descendants in the Grosvenors’ west London estates.

The lack of coherent authority in the hands of either the kings of Gwynedd or the Marcher lords was to bedevil Wales for four and a half centuries. The lords were drawn into alliances and feuds with local Welsh kings. In a typical such confrontation, the Battle of Mynydd Carn near St David’s in 1081, a Deheubarth army with Irish and Danish support confronted an army of Glamorgan and Powys with Norman support. The victory for Deheubarth briefly strengthened Wales against the Normans. It led William I to march to Pembroke and visit the Welsh shrine of St David’s, signing in 1081 a treaty with the local king of Deheubarth, Rhys ap Tewdwr (r.1078–93).

Nowhere was Wales stable for long. The Normans’ armoured knights could overwhelm Welsh infantry in open battle but were vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. Their motte-and-bailey castles made the March one of the most fortified frontiers in Europe. Archaeologists have identified eighty-five mottes in Shropshire, thirty castles in Glamorgan and some 400 Norman forts in Wales as a whole. They are vivid memorials to Welsh nuisance value.

The most persistent opposition to the Normans came from the kingdom of Gwynedd, where Gruffydd ap Cynan (r.1081–1137) regularly drove Norman intruders from his land. To the south the Cadwgan clan continued in control of much of what is now Ceredigion and parts of Powys. Even the Vikings returned, with the Norse king Magnus Barelegs (d.1103) – so named for his liking for the kilt – becoming king of the Scottish islands, taking Man and Dublin and even landing on Anglesey in 1098. He thought in the words of the Chronicle ‘that he would conquer all England’. He eventually died in Ireland.

The fate of individuals caught up in the Welsh anarchy was not confined to kings. Princess Nest (c.1085–c.1136), daughter of Rhys of Deheubarth and descendant of Hywel Dda, was carried off after a battle by the Normans under William Rufus (1087–1100). Startlingly beautiful, she captivated the king’s son, the future Henry I, appearing with him in an illuminated manuscript together in bed and both wearing crowns. Nest was later wife to Gerald, custodian of Pembroke Castle, was kidnapped by Owain Cadwgan, returned to marry the Sheriff of Pembroke and then the Constable of Ceredigion. Two of her sons, Maurice FitzGerald and Robert FitzStephen, went on to lead the Norman invasion of Ireland and found Irish dynasties. She has been plausibly dubbed ‘the Helen of Wales’.

Over the course of the twelfth century Wales settled into two halves. The north, known as Pura Wallia, centred on Gwynedd, with contested portions of Ceredigion and Powys. The south was the March, or Marcia Wallia. There were none of Scotland’s boroughs, rather fortresses with market settlements round their gates. The old Welsh clasau or monastic colleges decayed and the Welsh church was reordered under Norman bishops at St David’s and Llandaff. This was despite pleas for Welsh ecclesiastical independence from the diarist Gerald of Wales, one of Nest’s many grandsons. His longing for a bishopric was never satisfied, denied, so he said, from his being both insufficiently English and insufficiently Welsh, a curse on self-styled half-castes down the ages.

To whom goes Ireland?

Ireland was different again. The Irish Sea remained a vigorous trading corridor. William’s son Rufus allegedly planned a pontoon bridge from Scotland to Antrim. But the Conqueror was happy to let sleeping – or at least brawling – dogs lie. Ireland was seen as no threat to England. It was not until the arrival of the Plantagenets under Henry II (r.1154–89) that circumstances altered.

The Marcher lord of Chepstow at the time was Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare (1130–76), Second Earl of Pembroke. Disinherited by Henry II for having supported King Stephen against his mother, Matilda, Strongbow formed an alliance with the king of the wealthy Irish province of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough. He too had been dispossessed of his land, by the high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, following a matrimonial dispute. In a private deal, Richard offered to help MacMurrough regain his kingdom if, in return, he could marry MacMurrough’s daughter and succeed eventually to the kingship itself.

Strongbow was joined in this private venture by two other Marcher grandees, Nest’s sons Robert FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald, and by four of her grandsons, to be known collectively as the Pembroke Circle. Such was the confusion of loyalties that they spoke French and went into battle against the Irish saluting the Welsh ‘Sainte David’. All were to become Irish lords and Nest was dubbed ‘queen-bee of the Cambro-Norman swarm’. Since her brother Gruffydd was ancestor to the Tudor dynasty of England, her Rhys family of Deheubarth towered over the history of Celtic-speaking Britain. No one involved seems to have spoken English.

The invasion of Ireland in 1169–70 was the first arrival of English – or rather Norman/Welsh – soldiers on Irish soil and one that was never to be forgotten. It was an act of private enterprise, or perhaps banditry, by a group of Marcher barons unauthorised by their king, Henry II. Strongbow’s soldiers proved invincible, taking not just Leinster but also Dublin, Wexford and Waterford. They were followed by a gold rush of Norman adventurers eager for Irish land, who in turn were followed by Welsh settlers. To this day Walsh (or Welsh) is among the most common surnames in Ireland.

Henry II disapproved of Strongbow’s invasion. He wanted no powerful warlords in control of territory on both sides of the Irish Sea. Strongbow was allowed to keep his Irish estates but on condition that he surrendered his English and Welsh ones. Henry personally visited Ireland for six months in 1172, the first (and almost the last) English king to do so in a spirit of peace. In return, Strongbow acknowledged Henry as his liege and as lord of Dublin. The king held a grand feast of ‘unknown English dishes’ for the Irish ‘kinglets’. How many attended is not known, but the clear implication was that the English crown was now asserting its sovereignty over Ireland. England acquired its Irish empire, as was said of its Indian one, ‘in a fit of absence of mind’.

The historian of this ‘first English empire’, as he called it, Rees Davies, argued that such an advance into Ireland was only a matter of time. Ultimately, no English ruler could ignore the Irish Sea. To Davies, the western trade conduit was ‘the highway of power in this zone – the means to a more than local or regional supremacy’. As yet, no formal homage was paid to any Norman monarch by ‘kings’ in Ireland, by the O’Neills of Ulster or the Connachta of Connaught. But since Strongbow was bidding to join their ranks, Henry could not tolerate a semi-independent power emerging on his western flank. Besides, his attention at the time was focused on a greater empire across the Channel in France and Aquitaine.

In 1177 Henry duly made his younger son John (the future king) ‘Lord of Ireland’, firmly under his authority. Hugh de Lacy he made Lord of Meath. He also declared that no part of Ireland be called a kingdom. Normans were now arriving in Ireland in strength, but behaving quite unlike those who took titles and estates in David’s Scotland. While the latter remained essentially Anglo-Norman courtiers, the Irish settlers married and integrated into the existing Irish establishment. In Scotland, they spoke French and then English; in Ireland they spoke French and then Irish. Whereas in Scotland they might aspire to remain good Normans, in Ireland they aspired to become good Irish.

The fumbling for a new Britain

Under the Plantagenets the ambition of William’s original conquest of England had been fulfilled. The Norman seizure of England’s land and church and the insertion of a new elite and government laid the foundations for one of medieval Europe’s most coherent states. This was in stark contrast with the preceding Anglo-Saxon instability. Only round the edges was the political landscape ragged. Here the power of London exerted its sovereignty through military might and declarations of homage. There were no treaties or constitutions, no titles or coats of arms, no councils or assemblies. To Henry II, whose domain embraced the Angevin empire of his father and the Aquitanian empire of his queen, Eleanor, this domestic empire might have seemed small change. Yet it was a constant distraction.

After enforcing on Scotland the Treaty of Falaise in 1174, Henry the following year enforced the same homage on the king of Connacht as premier Irish ruler. In Wales he was aided by a period of stability under Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth (r.1155–97), whom he made justiciar or governor of south-west Wales. But while the separate rulers of Gwynedd and Powys would declare their homage to Henry, they would not do so to Rhys. The ever observant Gerald of Wales wrote that by these moves Henry was able ‘to include the whole island of Britain in one monarchy’. But it was not really one monarchy, rather a portfolio of monarchies, bound together by force of arms and oaths of allegiance. Wales, Ireland and Scotland retained their own disparate rulers, courts, laws and assorted militias. In each of them, succession was accompanied by fierce argument if not civil war.

Such a moment came during the turbulent reign of King John (r.1199–1216). Wales, after a bitter succession struggle, was ruled by Gwynedd’s Llywelyn the Great (r.1195–1240), whose relations with John were initially good. Llywelyn married John’s natural daughter, Joan. But in 1211 a Powys border dispute led to a Welsh uprising in which Llywelyn sided with John’s increasingly powerful baronial enemies. Likewise in Scotland John’s weakness led to its king, William, again seeking possession of Northumbria, and being again refused. This initiated what was to become a Scottish instinct when trouble brewed with England, an attempted alliance with the English crown’s enemy, Capetian France, based in Paris.

This coincided with a parallel invitation from John’s barons to Prince Louis of France to invade and help topple him. As John approached his doom, in 1216 a Scottish army marched south across England to coincide with Louis’s invasion in support of the barons. The new king of Scotland, Alexander II (r.1214–49), even paid Louis formal homage at Dover. The seeds of an ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France were sown. Scotland and Wales were now both acting alongside dissident barons against the English crown. Helpful though it might have been to undermine John, the precedent for all concerned was ominous.

John’s death in 1216 meant England now passed to Henry III (r.1216–72), a passionate Francophile. The young king married the thirteen-year-old Eleanor of Provence, and became obsessed with his equally Francophile hero, Edward the Confessor, rebuilding Edward’s Westminster Abbey in the French style. As for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Henry saw them as simply a resource for the enrichment of his courtiers.

Wales was unimportant to Henry. The 1247 Treaty of Woodstock with Llywelyn the Great’s successor, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (r.1246–82), reduced Pura Wallia to the status of an English lordship, inciting the English Benedictine monk Matthew Paris to write that ‘Wales has been reduced to nothing’. As his reign weakened, in 1267 Henry reversed Woodstock with the Treaty of Montgomery, finally acknowledging Llywelyn as Prince of Wales. This was the first formal acceptance by England of a single integrated Welsh nation.

Scotland was treated with greater respect. Its kings, Alexander II and Alexander III (r.1249–86), were initially preoccupied with gaining control of their western isles from the Norwegians. This was achieved after the Battle of Largs in 1263 and the subsequent Treaty of Perth. Scotland’s sovereignty now expanded to embrace the previously anarchic Highlands and islands. At Alexander III’s coronation his genealogy had been recited to the assembled gathering in Gaelic, and he carefully did not pledge homage to the English crown.

On Henry III’s death an observer might have concluded that Wales and Scotland could demonstrate relatively stable monarchies. Both had features of medieval states in embryo, in homage to the English crown much as France’s dukedoms were to Paris. Ireland was some way behind but with the advantage of an island of its own. Though all these countries had experienced subservience to England, this had not imposed on them the apparatus of imperial rule, whether constitutional, judicial or fiscal. They were de facto self-governing. The trouble was the absence of any procedure for settling disagreements. There was only the battlefield. England’s emergent rule was therefore to be enforced through the sword.

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