Chapter 10

Revving Up the 'Real' Middle Ages with the Normans

In This Chapter

● Getting settled with the Normans

● Waging the Battle of Hastings

● Securing lands with castles

● Heading into southern Italy with the de Hauteville clan

Ask anybody for an important date from the Middle Ages, and the likely answer is 1066 - the year of the Battle of Hastings. According to this famous and often-told story, William of Normandy (popularly known as William the Conqueror and William the Bastard) invaded England, King Harold received an arrow in the eye during the battle and, following his victory, William seized the crown of England for himself.

But 1066 is notable for more than King Harold looking up at an inopportune moment! For a start, William was in essence a Viking (turn to Chapter 8 for all about the Vikings), and other Norman invasions were also taking place elsewhere in Europe. Furthermore, the results of the Battle of Hastings went far deeper than just the appearance of a new king. The Normans made massive changes to England; the structure of society changed, economic policies changed and the landscape was altered with a huge number of new buildings.

In this chapter I look at how the Normans came into being and the massive impact they had across the Medieval World. Many people consider that the Middle Ages truly began towards the end of the eleventh century - the time that William was remodelling England in his own design - so get ready, the ‘real’ Middle Ages start now!

Stormin' Normandy

Most people associate the Normans with France and the area still known today as Normandy. Less well-known is the fact that when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, the Normans had existed for only about 150 years. The following section explores the Norman’s meteoric rise to power.

Settling in Northmannia

In the early years of the tenth century, a group of Vikings from Scandinavia settled and made a community alongside the Seine river in northwestern France. This activity was fairly typical of the Vikings, because they travelled and settled all around Europe (Chapter 8 contains much more on the Vikings).

Of course, the new Scandinavian visitors weren’t exactly popular with the local Frankish population, who referred to them as northmanni (literally ‘men from the north’). Traditionally the northmanni were feared for their savage attacks in which villages were burned and Christians sold into slavery. The Viking presence was most certainly viewed as threatening.

However, the Viking settlements in this region proved to be different. Their leader, a man called King Rollo, met with the Frankish king Charles ‘The Simple’ in 911. Charles was understandably keen to strike a deal with the Vikings because of their very threatening presence. He offered Rollo his daughter as a wife along with large chunks of territory in northern France (these would go on to become the area known as Normandy). In exchange Charles wanted Rollo to cease attacks on local villages and convert to Christianity. Rollo readily agreed.

According to a man called Dudo who wrote a history of the Normans, the meeting with Rollo was successful until Charles asked him to make the traditional gesture of homage and kiss his foot. Rollo refused but asked one of his men to do so:

And the man immediately grasped the king’s foot and raised it to the mouth and planted a kiss on it while he remained standing, and laid the king flat on his back.

Despite this unfortunate misunderstanding Rollo still got his land, and what ultimately became the Duchy of Normandy was born.

Building up the Duchy of Normandy: Gold and Frankish sense

The original Viking settlers in the newly founded Normandy were a relatively small group of aristocrats. In order for their territory to grow, they needed to attract other people. During the tenth century, they absorbed many of the native Frankish population as well as other Vikings who travelled to join the soon thriving community.

Despite Rollo agreeing to be baptised as a Christian, he and the Vikings clung to their old traditions, such as speaking the Norse language and remaining remote from the politics of the Frankish world.

After Rollo’s death in 932, the duchy passed to his son William Longsword. Although William continued to speak Norse, he began to follow some Frankish traditions. For example, he minted his own money in the town of Rouen, something that was common amongst medieval rulers in Central Europe but not in Scandinavia. It was similar in style and value to that of Carolingian coins (check out Chapter 5 for more on Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty).

William also involved himself more in Frankish politics. Despite being the ruler over his own kingdom, he was still a vassal of the Frankish king and required to play a part in the administration of the kingdom. The period of William’s reign was very fractious in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire and involved a civil war between three pretenders to the Frankish throne. William took advantage of the situation, by attempting to expand his territory.

His first target was modern-day Flanders, to the northeast of Normandy.

He also led raids westwards against the Bretons in Brittany These activities made him unpopular and he was assassinated in 942 during an ambush planned by the Count of Flanders.

William’s death brought to an end the more aggressive Viking-like policy of expansion through raiding. Over the next century, Normandy quietly consolidated under the long-term leadership of Duke Richard I and his successor Duke Richard II. During this period links with Scandinavia gradually faded and Northmannia truly became Normandy.

Normandy was a fully functioning part of the Frankish Empire with a Christian Church, a leader who ruled like other Frankish counts and acceptance as part of the Frankish world. As Figure 10-1 shows, by the middle of the eleventh century, Normandy was a sizeable and significant territory - but the eyes of its new ruler, Duke William I, were trained overseas on Britain.

Figure 10-1: France around the year 1050

Mounting the Norman Invasion - 1066 and All That!

Normandy’s period of quiet expansion came juddering to a halt in 1026 when Duke Richard II died. His eldest son took the throne as Richard III but was unseated by his brother Robert only ten months after his coronation. The two brothers and their supporters fought each other, and Richard finally gained Robert’s subjugation but died within a year; sources suggest that he was poisoned.

Technically the title should have passed to Richard’s young son but he was shepherded off to spend his life in a monastery by the treacherous Robert, who assumed the title of Duke of Normandy.

Claiming William 'The Bastard'

Having won his throne through treachery, Robert found allies difficult to come by and was very swiftly attacked internally and from beyond the borders of the duchy. He was forced to make deals to hold on to power and was quite ineffective as a ruler. Eventually he decided to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in an attempt to gain divine assistance. Unfortunately, this surprising move didn’t work.

He died in July 1035 in the city of Nicaea on the way back from Jerusalem; most historical sources claim that he was poisoned. He was 35 years old and didn’t name a legitimate heir.

Magnificent devil

Robert's life was eventful and relatively brief.

The changing names that he was given over the years indicate how opinions and reputations were swift to change in the Medieval World:

During his lifetime and after the suspected poisoning of his brother, Richard III, he was referred to as Robert 'The Devil'.

Following his death on pilgrimage and the successes of his son William, he was called Robert 'The Magnificent'.

In the absence of a legitimate son, Robert was forced to select his illegitimate seven-year-old son William as heir. Nothing is certain about who William’s mother was. Some sources say that she was the daughter of an aristocrat, others that her father was a common tradesman. A debate exists even about her name, although most people refer to her as Herleva. Whoever she was, she hadn’t been married to Robert but such relationships out of wedlock between nobles and women possibly from the lower orders weren’t uncommon. However, the fact that William wasn’t legitimate and his young age made his selection as heir doubly risky.

Making friends and foes

William (who would go on to be known as William the Conqueror) had an incredibly precarious upbringing. Fortunately, he was able to rely on the support of Robert’s barons who were loyal to him. He needed them, because the first two decades of his reign saw full-scale revolts against him led by competing lords such as Guy of Burgundy.

Although he was initially supported by the king, Henry I of France eventually betrayed William. At the beginning of the 1050s, he fought an exhausting war with the king. During this period he was ably supported by Baldwin, the Count of Flanders, whose daughter, Matilda, he had married in 1050.

This relationship proved extremely handy in 1060 when King Henry I died, because his son and the heir to the French throne was under the guardianship of Flanders. William stopped fearing any threat from the south and turned his eyes north, across the channel.

Looking towards England

By the 1060s William was in an excellent position. He was young, successful and politically secure with allies to the northeast of him in Flanders and all his foes to the south too weak to make a challenge. He was at the head of an extremely tough and well-trained army, whose recent battle experiences had only made them tougher. Although Normandy was an independent state, its soldiers were still as fearsome as their Viking ancestors - physically large and ferocious in battle. Norman troops were feared throughout France.

The mindset of a medieval lord may seem strange to modern eyes. People today would perhaps be satisfied with such a strong position, but William was always unlikely to settle for what he had. He could have remained content with his lot, but his rivals would have perceived this behaviour as weakness.

Simply put, standing still was fatal for a medieval ruler. From William’s point of view, he had to seize on his rivals’s temporary problems to make further ground for himself, so that when they were ready to challenge him again he would be that much stronger. This mindset was common among medieval nobles, but even so William’s move to invade England was a surprise.

So why did a Norman count, only five generations removed from his Viking ancestors, think that he had a claim to the throne of England? Surprisingly, the answer comes down to his aunt! William’s great-aunt Emma had been the wife of the English king Ethelred (known as the ‘Unready’). Their son Edward, who had grown up in Normandy, inherited the throne in 1042.

Despite being the king of England, Edward didn’t have much love for his country. He had grown up in Normandy and liked the lifestyle that he’d enjoyed when living there with his cousin William. Norman sources state that when Edward fell ill in 1064 and had to choose an heir, he named William. William may well have known about this for some time as some sources suggest that Edward made the promise to him as far back as when he visited England in 1051.

Unfortunately things weren’t quite that simple. Edward appears to have been a little over generous with his bequests, because two other people also claimed that he’d named them as his heir (to be fair, one was called Harold and the other Harald, and so some confusion was understandable):

● The first claimant was Harold Godwinson, the earl of Wessex, the largest of the English earldoms.

● The other claimant was Harald III of Norway, a Viking king not far removed from William’s ancestors.

Although both claimed that Edward had verbally offered them the throne, when Edward died in January 1066, Harold Godwinson was crowned as the new king of England - and a whole heap of trouble started brewing.

Invading England: The Norman Conquest

The news of Harold’s coronation was not well received in Normandy. William wrote to Pope Alexander II demanding support for his claim to the throne and received a consecrated papal banner, with which he later rode into battle.

More importantly, William immediately began to plan an invasion. He managed to put together an impressive force at the Norman port of Dives-sur-Mer. His army numbered around 7,000 men from his own forces, mercenaries, allies and a number of foreign knights. He also put together a fleet of 600 ships to carry them across the channel.

William was ready to go by July 1066, but terrible weather delayed his departure. In the end, the delay proved extremely fortunate for several reasons:

● With the imminent danger passed, Harold moved his ships from the south coast back to London, to keep them safe during the bad weather. This move left the way clear for William’s invasion. On 8 September 1066, Harold also disbanded his army.

● Another heap of trouble was brewing in the north. Edward’s other ‘successor’ - Harald III of Norway - was about to begin his own invasion of England. Only a couple of weeks after Harold Godwinson disbanded his army, Harald III landed near York with a large Viking force.

King Harold was forced hastily to reassemble his army and make the long march north. While he was absent from the south, on 12 September, William attempted to cross the channel, but was forced to turn back by strong winds. On 25 September, King Harold defeated Harald III in a tough battle in the north.

On 27 September, as Harold made his way back from York, William and his Norman fleet finally sailed. They landed at Pevensey Bay and then made their way to a site near the modern town of Hastings.

Waging the Battle of Hastings

William’s first act was to establish a wooden castle as a base of operations. (Building castles was something that William continued to do throughout England during his conquests; see the later section ‘Constructing Castles:

The New Big Things’ for more details.)

The armies of Harold and William met on 14 October at a place called Senlac Hill, around six miles or ten kilometres north of Hastings and the site of the modern-day town of Battle. Both sides were fairly evenly matched in terms of numbers: figures suggest that the Norman army was around 8,500 as opposed to around 7,500 English troops. Aside from the numbers, the Normans had two big advantages:

● William’s army was faster and more mobile. The vast majority of Harold’s troops fought on foot, whereas William had something like 2,200 cavalry available.

● William’s army was in better condition. Harold’s army had fought an exhausting battle in York only three weeks before and then marched swiftly back to the south. They were in far from peak condition.

Harold’s army was made up of two different types of troops:

● The housecarls, who were his own personal troops (and those of his other noble supporters), professional warriors who had professed personal allegiance to their lord.

● The men of the fyrd, men from the earldoms of England who were less well armed and experienced.

The Battle of Hastings was fought in a way not dissimilar to many other medieval battles and so its details are worth examining. Figure 10-2 illustrates the main moves that took place during the battle, including the following (the numbers relate to the arrows on the plan):

1. The Normans began with a barrage by their archers against the English infantry, hoping to make breaks in the line before trying to charge it.

2. The Norman infantry charged up the hill at the English, while the English in turn bombarded them with rocks, javelins and anything else to hand.

3. The two infantry lines came together in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. The battle must have been much tougher than the Normans were expecting because their archery barrage hadn’t been as effective as they had hoped against the English stout shields.

4. William sent in his cavalry much more quickly than he intended to support the infantry. The two sides fought hard for about an hour before some of the Norman cavalry began to fall back under pressure.

5. The English were tempted into chasing the fleeing Normans - a move that fatally broke apart their infantry wall. The Norman cavalry then reformed and charged back up the hill, cutting a swathe through the stranded English.

6. The English at the top of the hill began to fall back, and William ordered his archers to fire over the infantry line and into the mass of men who were confused about where to move.

The impact of this final step was devastating. According to many sources, Harold was fatally wounded by an arrow in the eye. In the confusion that followed, the Norman cavalry charged again and the battle turned into a rout. Modern scholars believe that around 5,000 English and 3,000 Normans were killed - around 55 per cent of those who took the field. Harold was dead, and England had a new king - William I of Normandy.

Figure 10-2: Plan of the Battle of Hastings

A well-spun tale

One of the reasons historians know so much about the Battle of Hastings is the existence of the Bayeux tapestry, which was originally displayed in Bayeux Cathedral in France. Despite the name, it isn't strictly speaking a tapestry but a massive piece of embroidered cloth (69 metres or 226 feet long), which depicts the events from the beginning of 1066 to William assuming the throne after the Battle of Hastings.

Along the way many of the most famous scenes are depicted, including Harold's death, possibly caused by an arrow. (Indeed, the tapestry is the main source for this detail.) One section shows a warrior with an arrow in his eye and has 'Harold' written above it. Next to him is another warrior being killed who has the Latin infectus est ('has been killed') written above him. The story of Harold's death by an arrow comes from this part of the tapestry, although whether the two pieces of writing both refer to the man with the arrow in his eye isn't clear.

The tapestry also depicts a few startling things. Halley's Comet appears, something that would have been interpreted as a bad omen at the time, and various other strange figures and situations crop up, events that nobody has yet managed to explain satisfactorily.

The biggest mystery, however, is who ordered the tapestry to be made. Many people have cited Matilda, William's wife, as having ordered it, but most scholars suggest that it was probably Bishop Odo, William's half brother. Nearly 1,000 years after it was made, the tapestry is still on display in the town of Bayeux and a full copy is displayed in the English town of Reading.

Transforming England: Normanisation

The story of how William brought England under his control is almost as fascinating as how he came to invade it. In the 21 years of his reign, William transformed England from how he had found it on arrival into a fully functioning Norman state, along the lines of the duchy he had left behind but on a much, much bigger scale. The following sections detail this transformation.

Building towers of power

One of the most obvious changes following William’s coronation was the sight of castles springing up all over the English landscape. You can read all about them when I look at castle building in the later section ‘Constructing Castles: The New Big Things’.

The most impressive of all William’s buildings is the Tower of London. William constructed the White Tower (as it was known) in 1078, and it still stands impressively today. With walls 4.5 metres (or 14.5 feet) thick and reaching a height of 27 metres (or 88.5 feet), the tower dominated the landscape for miles around and served as a very visible sign of the new force in town.

Ringing the changes

William didn’t stop at just changing the landscape, he also fundamentally changed the nature of society. French immediately became the language of choice among the new aristocracy and stayed that way for about the next 300 years.

The old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was virtually eliminated, with lands seized and given over to Norman (or Norman-friendly replacements). Anglo-Saxons were eliminated from positions of influence. Many fled and some were sold into slavery. Within 20 years of the Battle of Hastings, 90 per cent of the land in control of the old aristocracy had been transferred to that of the new Norman overlords - an amazing pace of change in any time period.

These changes in power were backed by a complete rewrite of the English legal system: Norman law was brought in to replace it. The power of earls who were so much part of the feudal system in Anglo-Saxon England (see Chapter 3) was massively reduced. William allowed them to control only one shire apiece.

Instead, control of local areas was transferred to local towns and brought under organised central control. This administrational task was a massive one and to help with the process William ordered the making of an amazing new survey - the Domesday Book.

Published in 1086, the Domesday Book was a staggering achievement and a vital aid in bringing England under Norman rule. Initially designed as a way of assessing the levels of tax that were liable under the reign of Edward the Confessor, the book turned into an assessment of the wealth of the entire nation. The survey took a year to complete and gave William a total reckoning of what he was due, both in general taxes and in revenues derived from Crown lands, or areas owned by the king.

The Domesday Book’s name comes from the old English word dorn, which translates as ‘doom’ and means reckoning or accounting for. The book certainly meant doom for some people, because its judgement was final and appeals were forbidden.

A total of 13,418 places are listed in the Domesday Book, which was originally written in Latin, still at this time the language of administration across the whole of Medieval Europe. All the lands, livestock and possessions in the country were gathered together under the fiefs (see Chapter 3) of which they were a part, rather than geographically by town or city.

The following entry from the Domesday Book is taken from a section concerning the land of a man called Robert Malet who lived in Norfolk:

Fredrebruge Hundred and half Glorestorp. Godwin, a freeman, held it. Two carucates of land in the time of king Edward. Then and afterwards 8 villains; now 3. Then and afterwards 3 bordars; now 5. At all times 3 serfs, and 30 acres of meadow. At all times 2 carucates in demesne [the whole of the land in question associated with Robert Malet’s manor]. Then half a caru-cate of the men, and now. Woods for 8 swine, and 2 mills. Here are located 13 socmen, of 40 acres of land.. .At all times 8 swine, then 20 sheep, and it is worth 60 shillings.

A carucate was the unit of land area used throughout the book for taxation purposes. It was a measure of land considered to be big enough for a tiller of eight oxen to plough during a season. Socmen were tenants who worked on the land in question, so here there were 13 tenants working on the land.

The Domesday Book was a huge success that allowed William and his successors the financial freedom to implement other control measures, including the use of castles and knights.

Constructing Castles: The New Big Things

Another important method used by William the Conqueror to enforce his authority over England was the building of castles. Castles are one of the two main things that people associate with the Middle Ages along with knights, but both took a while to become mainstays of the Medieval World. Indeed, only in the eleventh century did both of these institutions become commonplace.

The next sections focus on medieval castles (I examine the development of the knights in Chapter 11).

Defending your land and hosting guests

In a way, castles were no great invention. From the earliest days after the break-up of the Roman Empire, the more important men in European society had lived in large houses along with their retinues. Over time, new aristocracies emerged, and men took titles such as duke, earl or baron. None of these titles really signified anything different from each other, but by the eleventh century these men were becoming extremely powerful and in control of huge areas of land - which needed protecting and defending.

The word castle comes from the Latin word castellum, meaning a fortified place. Many towns and cities in the Ancient World were fortified, but the difference with a castle is that it was a deliberately fortified dwelling, rather than a palace in a fortified town (such as the palaces in which a Roman Emperor may have lived).

Castles were both defensive and offensive structures. You were able to hide in one from attackers but also use one to attack, by building it in your enemy’s territory. When William the Conqueror won at Hastings in 1066, he used castles for both of these purposes - to secure what he had and to push farther inland to grab more territory.

Castles also had a social function. Kings and lords lived and conducted all their business and administration in castles, and visitors were received and feasts and revels also held there. A castle was the dominant building in the local area, both physically and in terms of its relevance to people’s lives.

Touring early buildings: Motte and bailey castles

In the early centuries after the fall of Rome (roughly from 450 to 750), fortifications tended to be made by adapting existing buildings that had fallen into disrepair. By the tenth century a new and clear pattern for building fortifications emerged, and in the eleventh century it was introduced to England by the Normans.

The earliest examples of these buildings were known as motte and bailey castles, which involved creating a large hill (known as the motte) and surrounding it with a water moat or some kind of ditch. The structure built on top of the hill was known as a bailey or keep. Everything was placed in the bailey, including residential areas, stables and a water well, so the bailey was a simple and effective place of security.

Fulk of Anjou: A model builder

The Count of Anjou in France, Fulk 'The Black' - who is, as I relate in Chapter 1, infamous for burning his wife when he suspected her of adultery - is also known for his castle building. Indeed, he was one of the first major builders.

Fulk built castles for a variety of reasons but mostly as a very visible symbol of his power and a method of intimidating the population of Anjou. Very often these structures were not great works of architecture but just simple buildings, set up on a motte or a naturally raised piece of ground. The keep or donjon that he built at Montbazon (in the Loire region of central France) is still standing and is a great example of the many such buildings that Fulk constructed.

Fulk's last building, however, was a church. As he grew older he became terrified of the prospect of not reaching Heaven because of his wicked behaviour. At a place called Conquereuil, in northwest France, where he had once won a great victory, he founded a large church. Unfortunately for Fulk on the day of its consecration, the building was partly blown down by the wind. To his enemies this event was evidence of divine judgement!

Visiting medieval castles

By the eleventh century, castles had developed considerably from their motte-and-bailey predecessors. Variations appeared all around Europe, but in essence functioning medieval castles were built of stone and always contained the following key elements (as Figure 10-3 shows):

● The keep, or donjon, was the largest tower and central feature of a castle. This structure housed the residing ruler and his retinue and provided storage. The keep was the most secure spot in the castle; people flocked to it during crisis or attack.

● The outer walls, or curtain walls, surrounded the keep and central area. They were a second layer of defence, separate from the keep or (if the castle had one) the bailey. Gradually, turrets were developed on the walls to give an extra level of observation of the surrounding area.

● The gatehouse provided access through the wall into the central area. A gate was a castle’s potential defensive weakness, and so it was fortified more than elsewhere on the walls. A later development was the portcullis, a latticed gate made of wood or metal that was raised and lowered to admit people.

● The moat was a deep ditch dug around the castle and filled with water. The moat served as a first line of defence, and a drawbridge that lowered from the gatehouse was used to cross it.

Figure 10-3: Plan of a typical Norman castle with common elements

As the medieval period continued, castle building became more sophisticated with other elements becoming standard. For example, the use of crenellations or merlons - the battlements put on top of towers that look like teeth sticking up - and the slots built into walls that gave cover to archers as they fired down on attackers were key innovations. Other types of openings, known as murder holes, were left in the walls so that defenders were able to drop objects such as rocks or pour boiling water on to the heads of attackers. Sneaky!

All these developments meant that attacking a castle became increasingly difficult and costly. Siege warfare techniques were developed to cope with the new defences (check out Chapter 12 and the section on the siege of Antioch).

Figure 10-4 shows Tonbridge Castle, the first castle that I ever saw because it stands in the Kent town where I grew up. Originally a motte-and-bailey castle, the stone structure was built in the late eleventh century by William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, after having burnt down the original structure to punish the owner who’d rebelled against him. The picture below shows a twin-towered gatehouse that was constructed on the site around 1260 and is still open to visitors today.

Figure 10-4: Two medieval castles: Tonbridge gatehouse (left) and Bodiam (right)

Figure 10-4 also shows Bodiam Castle in Sussex. This brilliantly preserved castle is an ideal site to visit to get a real idea of what Medieval castles were like. The structure was built much later than Tonbridge Castle in the late fourteenth century by Edward Dalyngrigge to defend against a possible French invasion during the Hundred Years’ War (which I cover in Chapter 21). Bodiam is in superb condition and a typical example of the period. For more great castles, cross over to Chapter 27.

Property prices

Building castles wasn't cheap. Early castles were made of wood, but stone soon became the standard building material with the outer walls and keep almost certainly being made of stone like sandstone, limestone, flint or hard chalk.

Unless the builder was able to quarry stone nearby, it had to be moved to the site, which was time-consuming and expensive. Workers's wages may have been low on a daily basis, but building a castle took about five years and hundreds of labourers. The keep alone of Dover castle on the south coast of England took five years to build between 1182-1187, at a cost of about £4,000 (equivalent to nearly £480,000 today).

Castles also cost a fortune to maintain and improve. Documents show that the English king Henry II (1154-1189) spent around £1,400 over eight years on the upkeep of Orford castle (in Suffolk, eastern England). This equates to about £168,000 these days; and Orford was a small castle with just the one tower. Big money, especially when you consider that England had hundreds of castles at this time, and they all required repair and maintenance.

Journeying South: The Normans in the Mediterranean

William the Conqueror’s achievements were amazing, but he wasn’t the only Norman to venture farther afield than northern France. Before William’s conquests, other Normans had also made their presence felt much farther south in Italy and particularly on the Mediterranean island of Sicily.

Fortune hunting in southern Italy: the de Hauteville clan

The story of the Normans in the Mediterranean really begins with a man about whom historians know virtually nothing. Tancred de Hauteville (9801041) was a minor Norman noble in charge of a number of small villages on the Contentin peninsula in Normandy. He seems to have led a fairly uneventful life with the exception of the fact that he sired 12 sons.

Three of these sons - William, Drogo and Humphrey - turned up in Italy in the 1030s as mercenaries in a Byzantine army that was trying to retake the island of Sicily from its Muslim rulers (flip to Chapter 7 for all about the

Islamic invasions). Although the expedition was a failure, the de Hautevilles obviously liked what they saw during their foray in Italy. The rest of the family soon travelled there in an attempt to find their fortune. Chief among them was Tancred’s sixth son Robert, known as Robert Guiscard the Cunning.

Men like Guiscard were euphemistically known as ‘adventurers’. Essentially they were brigands or robbers who made their money from a mixture of criminal activities and hiring themselves out as mercenaries to local lords. Robert’s brothers had done well for themselves by seizing territory from local rulers and then claiming the titles for themselves. Robert’s brother William (known as ‘Iron Arm’) proclaimed himself Duke of Apulia (Apulia is the ‘heel on the boot’ of southeast Italy), and his brother Drogo succeeded him on his death.

The political situation was so chaotic that various members of the de Hauteville clan were able to hold on to this territory. Lands in southern Italy were in dispute between the papacy, the Byzantine emperor and the Holy Roman emperor, none of whom were able to take back the land.

The criminal life of these Norman adventurers did, however, come under fire in 1053, when Pope Leo IX attempted to take back southern Italy. But his German army was soundly thrashed by the Normans in a battle at Civitate. This defeat brought an end to papal resistance of the de Hauteville clan. In 1059 Pope Nicholas II presented Robert with a banner proclaiming him as the rightful Duke of Apulia and Calabria. Crime does pay after all!

Setting their sights on Sicily

With Norman rule in Southern Italy official, the de Hauteville clan wasted no time in trying to take things further. Their next target was the island of Sicily, which had been under Muslim rule for several hundred years.

In 1061 a Norman force under Robert Guiscard and his younger brother Roger began their attacks on Sicily. They met with continued success until 1064 when they were defeated by a Muslim fleet off the coast of Palermo. Roger wasn’t held off for long though. Palermo finally fell in January 1072 and over the next 15 years Roger, now calling himself Roger I, completed his total conquest of the island. Still not satisfied he added Malta to his growing empire in 1090.

Taking on the Empire

As Roger's successes continued, his brother Robert was hardly slacking. In 1081 Robert launched an incredibly ambitious attempt to attack the Byzantine Empire! His first target was the port of Durazzo (on the western coast of modern-day Albania), from where he intended to march overland along a road known as the via Egnatia to Constantinople itself. His initial attempts to attack Durazzo were scuppered, but he returned and laid siege to the port, finally taking it, only to lose it again a year later.

Still not satisfied, he launched a naval attack in 1084 on the Byzantine island of Corfu. He successfully defeated a mixed army of Byzantines and Venetians but caught typhoid and died in the summer of 1085 at the age of 70.

In a little over a generation, the Normans in Italy went from being a band of ‘adventurers’ to the most feared military force in the Mediterranean. Norman rule in Sicily continued until the thirteenth century, and their influence can still be seen all over the island in the castles that remain, like the amazing black stone castle of Aci Castello built in 1076. Their success mirrored that of their Norman contemporary, William the Conqueror, in England.

European warriors smashing their way around the Mediterranean was something of a dry run for the next stage of medieval history. Farther to the east, a new conflict in which the Normans played a major role was about to begin. Read all about the Crusades in Part III!

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