Brief History of the World Wiki
Era of the Normans
Period High Middle Ages
Dates 978-1095 AD
Preceded by
End of the Early Middle Ages
Followed by
Crusading Age
The English Channel is such a narrow little puddle, you cannot help wondering why no invader has succeeded in crossing it since 1066.

–David Hewson

The Era of the Normans lasted from about 978 AD until 1095 AD. It began with reign of King Ethelred the Unready of England, which set in motion the events that led to the Norman conquest of England. It then ended on the eve of the Crusading Age.

The European centuries between the end of Classical Antiquity and the year 1000 or so can seem at a glance like a long slumber in which little was accomplished. No medieval historian would agree, seeing instead an age of foundation, when certain great markers laid out the pattern of the future. Then, in the 11th-century, a change of pace can be sensed. As it turned out, the Vikings and Magyars (Hungarians) were the last barbarian intruders that Europe would face; it is true, a near-miss with the Mongol horde still lay ahead. These more settled conditions opened a period of political, territorial, cultural, and economic expansion to a degree hardly conceivably in earlier centuries. Europe's Feudal System was mature and self-sustaining from this time, with its decentralization of military power, semi-autonomous regions, and exploitation of the peasantry. In cooperation with the clergy, the ruling class made it the basis of an age of renewal, an age of adventure, epitomized above all by the Normans and the Papacy.

The Normans, descendants of Vikings who settled in northern France, had a profound impact on many parts of Europe. Within a few generations, they had transformed themselves into Frenchmen in all essentials, adopting the French language, feudalism, legal systems, customs, and style of warfare; their heavy cavalry charge were almost irresistible. As with everything they did, the Normans embraced Christianity with a fierce enthusiasm, making a significant contribution to the Romanesque style of architecture. Under William the Conqueror, a few thousand Normans crossed the Channel in 1066 and conquered Anglo-Saxon England, resulting in a kingdom ruled by a French speaking nobility, and a cross-channel empire that lasted, in various forms, until the 15th-century. Other Norman adventurers independently conquered southern Italy and Sicily from the Muslims and Byzantines. They would later go on to provide much of the firepower of the First Crusade to the Holy Land, as well as contributing to the Spanish Reconquista.  

The Christian Church was meanwhile shaken from its slumber by the Cluniac movement, who essence was the renewal of piety and discipline within a monastic setting. Its reforming ideals were brought to the papacy by Pope Leo IX, who spearhead reform of the Church as a whole, targeting clerical marriage, simony, and secular political interference in the Church. The latter came to a head in a confrontation known as the Investiture Controversy, which provided one of the most iconic images of the Middle Ages. In 1077, German king-emperor Henry IV undertook a desperate winter journey to Italy, where he spent three days standing before the castle of Canossa, until Pope Gregory VII finally agreed to lift his excommunication. More would be heard of papal claims to moral authority over secular powers over the next two centuries. The new aggressive intransigence of the papacy was further illustrated in the Great Schism of 1054. Until the 11th-century, Christianity had been a major unifying force between Eastern and Western Europe. However, theological differences and claims of papal supremely caused the two churches to slowly drift apart until a formal break occurred, dividing Christendom into two parts: the Western Latin Church and Eastern Orthodox Church.


Europe in 11th Century[]


Few terms have such misleading connotations as the "Middle Ages". A wholly Eurocentric usage, meaning nothing in the history of other traditions, they were first singled out and labelled by men in the 15th century, seeking to recapture a classical antiquity long cut off from them. In that remote past, they thought, men had done great things; a sense of rebirth and quickening of civilization upon them, they could believe that in their own day great things were being done once more. But in between two periods of creativity they saw only dull, uninteresting barbarism. Even two hundred years ago, the Middle Ages were thought of with mild contempt. Then, quite suddenly, came a great change. Men started to idealize those lost centuries as vigorously as their forebears had ignored them. Europeans began to fill out their picture of the past with romanticized novels about chivalry and their countryside with mock baronial castles inhabited by cotton-spinners and stockbrokers.Consequently, it is still very hard to be sure we understand the European Middle Ages. One crude distinction in this great tract of time nevertheless seems obvious enough: the centuries between the end of antiquity and the year 1000 or so now look very much like an age of foundation. Then, in the 11th century, a change of pace can be sensed. New developments quicken and become discernible. It becomes clear, as time passes, that they are opening the way to something quite different. An age of adventure and revolution is beginning in Europe, and it will go on until European history merges with the first age of global history.

The turn of millennium was no portentous event; apart from a few uneasy monks who speculated the world would end, Europeans were largely unaware of it. Counting by years from the supposed birth of Jesus Christ was not yet the rule; most realms still used regnal years, as in the fourth year of such-and-such a king's reign. If the comparison is with Byzantium or the Islamic world, then Europe west of the Elbe was for centuries after the Roman collapse an almost insignificant backwater of world history. Europe's population stood at around forty million, probably no bigger than during Classical Antiquity in the same area. Certainly, there is no evidence of anything more than a very slow population growth until the 11th-century. This was overwhelmingly an agrarian society, where subsistence was almost all that one could hope for. The cities in which a small minority lived were built among and of the ruins of what the Romans had left behind, and none could approach in magnificence Constantinople or Córdoba, which had populations of about 300,000 and 450,000 respectively, while Rome had a mere 35,000 and Paris 20,000. Men grew used to privation rather than opportunity, huddled together under the feudal warrior elite. For centuries, even the greatest European king was hardly more than a warlord, to whom men clung for protection; or in fear of something worse. The Christian Church was almost synonymous with European culture, the custodian of literacy and the teacher of all men; even kings were often illiterate far into the Middle Ages. There was little commerce, little government control, and violence was simply an accepted part of life. Many of its peoples felt themselves a beleaguered remnant, and so in a sense they were. Islam cut them off from the Mediterranean, the highway to other civilizations and their trade. After capturing Byzantine Crete in 825, Muslims used it and other islands effectively as a pirate bases to attack Mediterranean shipping and all along the coast. From the 8th-century the seemingly inexplicable violence of the Scandinavian Vikings fell like a flail time and time again on their northern shores and river valleys. In the early-9th-century, the pagan Magyars (Hungarians) launched plundering raids as far as as far as Spain, northern Germany and southern Italy. Only a thin channel of sea-borne communication with Byzantium brought Europe any relief from its introverted, narrow existence. Yet the Byzantines were becoming increasingly culturally alien to the West, even if they provided a cushion that just saved Europe from the full impact of Islam and of Asian steppe nomads.

As it turned out, the worst was over for Europe in the year 1000. A relaxation of pressure on her frontiers at last began to be felt. The Vikings and Magyars had been checked and began to be Christianized. As it turned out, they were to be the last barbarians to trouble Europe; for Western Europe anyway. One last great threat, the Mongol onslaught, still lay ahead, it is true, but that was unimaginable at that time. By the 11th-century, too, the rolling back of Islam had already begun. Palermo was back under Christian rule in 1071. The Islamic threat to southern Europeans diminished because a resurgent Byzantium under the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056) was challenging them for control of the Mediterranean. In the 11th-century, a change of pace can be sensed. Looking back, the centuries of the Early Middle Ages seem very much like an age of foundation, when certain great markers laid out the pattern of the future. The first was a cultural and psychological shift away from the Mediterranean, the focus of classical civilisation. The centre of European life, in so far as there was one, moved north to the valley of the Rhine and its tributaries. By preying on the Mediterranean sea-lanes, Islam helped to throw back the West upon this heartland of a future Europe. The second great shift was a gradual advance of Christianity. Within a short space of time Poland, Hungary, Denmark, and Norway, among others came to be ruled by Christian kings. The Byzantines came to use "Frank" to mean all of Western Christians. It caught on elsewhere and was still being used in various distortions and mispronunciations from Persia to China well into the 16th-century. This is more than just a historical curiosity; it's a helpful reminder that non-Europeans were struck from the start by the unity, not the diversity, of the Western peoples and long thought of them as one. European homogeneity can be illustrated in many ways. Saints names such as John and Germanic names like Henry could now be found well beyond the old Roman frontier, in Ireland and Scandinavia for instance. Frankish practices and values appeared everywhere too; a commitment to the written word, the ritual homage between vassal and lord, royal charters formalising the granting of rights, coinage was again minted in silver (except in Byzantium), and coats-of-arms to denote noble descent, all came into general use. The third and final great shift was that, from this time, Europe's Feudal System was mature and self-sustaining, with its decentralization of military power, semi-autonomous regions, and exploitation of the peasantry. In cooperation with the clergy, the ruling class of the 11th and 12th reorganized Western European society, and made it the basis of an age of renewal, an age of adventure, epitomized above all by the Normans.

Christian Church in 11th Century[]


The Christian Church had come a long way by the 10th-century. Christianity had spread across Europe, slowly at first, and then with greater speed, more or less from west to east: Ireland was first in the 5th-century; followed Scotland, England and central Germany in the 7th-century; then Saxony by force in the 8th; Russia, Bulgaria, and other Slavic lands in the 9th; Poland and Bohemia (modern-day Czechia and Slovakia) in the 10th; Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Hungary in the years around 1000; and Sweden more slowly across the 11th-century. Only the north-eastern Europe, the Baltic coast and Finnish-speaking lands, was left out of this for now; the conversion of Lithuania in 1387 would finally bring the disappearance of explicit paganism from the map of Europe. The religious beliefs of Christians came to be almost the same thing as society during the Middle Ages. The Church was for most men and women the only recorder of the great moments in life; their marriages, their children’s births and baptisms, their deaths. Many of them wholly gave themselves up to it; a much greater proportion of the population became monks and nuns than is the case today. Learning, charity, administration, justice, and economic life all fell within the orbit of religion. Christianity had come to define Europe’s purpose and to give its life a transcendent goal. It was also the reason why a few Europeans first became conscious of themselves as members of a particular civilisation, Christendom. And it was not threatened at all by alternative mythologies, except for a few Jews who were tolerated at least for now. Whatever qualifications and ambiguities hung about it, the Church's successes were huge; if also its failures were great too. The Church struggled to keep its teachings and principles intact with a body of clergy of whom many, if not most, were men of little learning, not much discipline, and dubious spirituality. The clergy became intertwined with the feudal system. Political rather than spiritual criteria came to dictate the selection of high ecclesiastical offices; bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries. Vast estates and feudal wealth in tithes (Church taxation) were attached to high clergymen. In many places, the local lord expected to install their kinsmen, less focused on the religion than on using church property to elevate their family. In others, they were appointed by the king or powerful princes, and almost indistinguishable from royal servants. Such conditions opened the way to "Simony" (the buying of ecclesiastical office), or even to the passing of offices from father to son with lax adherence to clerical celibacy. This same malaise affected the papacy in Rome itself. With the Italian Peninsula a crowded hodgepodge of petty-states, popes were chosen primarily for their political acumen in securing the Papal State. At times, the Throne of St. Peter became the prize fought over by Rome's noble factions. These struggles were periodically cut-across by the intervention of the Holy Roman Emperor. To be fair, the German candidates were for the most part better than the morally corrupt Italian power seekers. There were some very bad moments in the 10th-century. Pope John XII (956-963) was a particularly infamous example; a coarse, corrupt, and immoral individual, notorious for his sexual depravity. Church leaders long felt like an isolated and embattled remnant; they had after-all suffered terribly at the hands of Viking marauders. It is hardly surprising that western Christianity developed an aggressive intransigence, almost as a defensive reflex. Nor was it threatened merely by enemies without. The powerful monarchs of this world surrounded it, sometimes helpfully, always a potential (and often a real) threat to the Church’s independence.

The monastery Cluny, the most celebrated foundation of the 11th century reform of the Church.

Some in the Church were appalled by this spiritual decline and moral indiscipline. In the 960s, a series of unrelated reform movement took off in Western Europe, aimed at reintroducing a more rigorous monastic life. In England, King Edgar (d. 975) supported the expulsion of secular clergy from monasteries and cathedral chapters, and their replacement by ordained monks. In France, which had degenerated into many small counties and lordships, the Peace and Truce of God movement sought to limit the endemic violence of feudal warfare, such as restricting their depredations to certain days of the week or times of year. But the most celebrated example was the Abbey of Cluny. On the edge of Burgundy, earnest monastics persuaded Duke William of Aquitane (d. 918) to found the abbey on a modest scale around 910. It would be normal for a patron to assert certain rights and prerogatives that would interfere with the operation of a monastery, but William released Cluny from all future obligation to his family, except the monks' prayer. Most importantly, the monks were allowed to freely choose their own abbot, putting the position beyond secular interference. Four of the first eight abbots of Cluny were later canonised as saints; seven of them were outstanding men. It also helped that the abbey lay within something of a geographical power-vacuum between the duchies of Aquitaine and Burgundy. Cluniac monks attained a famously high level of sustainable piety and discipline through strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict, eliminating any potential idle time with a heavy schedules of communal prayer, fieldwork, and manuscript reproduction. Cluny’s real novelty was that it came to be the mother house for monasteries all across Western Europe. There was only one abbot, with the other houses headed by priors, whose main loyalties were to Cluny, and not to any local figure, whether bishop or count. Monks only entered their own monastery after a period of training at the Cluny. For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, Cluny would be the heart of reform within the Church, with three hundred monasteries creating an international network of identity and elaborate liturgical ritual which cut across all traditional political boundaries. The abbot of Cluny advised popes and acted as papal legates.

Pope Leo IX, the first of a series of great reforming popes.

Cluniac monasticism entered imperial Germany in the early 1000s, where Emperor Conrad II (d. 1037) and his son Henry III (d. 1056) threw their weight behind the reform movement. In 1046, the Papacy faced one of its recurrent crises, with three rivals popes contesting the pontifical honours. At the Council of Sutri (1046), Henry III deposed all three candidates, and installed his own, without the formality of election. German king-emperors had deposed popes several times since Otto the Great first did so in 963, but, over his reign, Henry personally selected four of the five pontiffs. The last of his popes, and the longest-lived, Pope Leo IX (1049-54), was of tremendous significance; the pope with whom what is known to history as the Gregorian Reforms really began. Leo was a man of immense reforming zeal, who spent barely six months of his five-year pontificate at Rome. Instead, he moved about from synod to synod in Italy, Germany, and France, correcting local practice, checking secular interference in the Church, punishing clerical impropriety, and imposing a new pattern of ecclesiastical discipline. Greater standardization of practice within the Church was one of the first results. Christianity became more homogeneous and more rigid: many doctrinal and liturgical practices dominant until this century are less than a thousand years old. Simony was at the top of Leo's agenda. At Reims in 1049, he had all the attending bishops and abbots swear that they had not paid money for their office: a coup de théâtre that forced several to resign. Leo also formally created the College of Cardinals as an advisory body to the papacy, which he stacked with fellow reformer, including Bishop Hildebrand, the future Pope Gregory VII. He was fortunate that the next two papal elections occurred during the troubled minority of Henry IV of Imperial Germany, allowing the cardinal-bishops to elect the Pope themselves, sidelining both the German Emperors and Roman lay nobility. The papal bull, In Nomine Domini (1059), caused major reforms in the system of papal elections, most notably establishing the College of Cardinals as the sole electors of the pope.

The Latin cross and the Orthodox cross. The Orthodox variation has a top crossbeam representing Pilate's mocking inscription, "King of the Jews", and a bottom crossbeam representing the footrest. The footrest slants upward toward the penitent thief Dismas, and downward toward impenitent thief Gestas.

This period also overlapped with what would later be described as the Great Schism of 1054, the permanent sundering of Christendom into the Latin Roman Catholic Church and Greek Eastern Orthodox Church. On Saturday 16 July 1054, as afternoon prayers were about to begin, a papal legate strode into the Basilica of Hagia Sophia, and placed a papal bull on the main altar, excommunicating the patriarch of Constantinople. A week later the patriarch returned the favour, excommunicating Pope Leo. The immediate cause of the dispute now seems trivial. In the wake of the Norman conquest of southern Italy, Greek bishops were being replaced with Latin ones. This schism however proved permanent. With hindsight, the Catholic and Orthodox churches went their separate ways quite early in Church history. In was the product of an original distinction of style, of political history, and of a gradual loosening of contact. This last one is hardly surprising, since it could take two months to travel by sea from Constantinople to Rome, while the overland route was long blocked by a wedge of pagan Slav peoples; the last patriarch of Constantinople to go to Rome did so in 663, and the last Pope to go to Constantinople went in 710. A distinction of styles could be illustrated in many ways. The importance of holy men had always been greater in the East, than in the more hierarchically aware Western Church. Theological debate was far more vigorous in the East, while the West largely accepted papal pronouncement without rancour ever since the demise of Arianism; Arianism had of course originated in the East, and been taken West by the 5th-century Germanic migrations. The Eastern Church, secure in its position, saw no particular need for clerical celibacy; the Orthodox priests were never to be quite the "man apart" his Catholic colleague became. In the Eastern Church, the congregation received both bread and wine in the Eucharist, while in the West only the bread was given to the laity, with the wine reserved for the clergy; at least until the 20th-century. Meanwhile the two halves of Christendom faced vastly different political realities, most notably, the Archbishop of Rome’s growing claim to universal jurisdiction. When the popes had made alliances with the secular rulers of the West, as with Pepin in 753 or with Charlemagne in 772 or with later Holy Roman Emperors, they did so as equal partners in a relationship of value to both sides. This was very different to the archbishop of Constantinople, who was part of the machinery of state of an emperor; the union of religious and secular authority was at the heart of Byzantine political theory. One contentious area of doctrine was the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief widely used in Christian liturgy. The long-running Filioque Controversy was in large part the result of efforts by Byzantium to accommodate their Monophysite minority in Egypt; a heresy that did not effect the West. The original text of the Creed says that the Holy Spirit proceeds "from the Father". However, from the late-6th-century, some Latin churches, without consulting the East, began adding, “and from the Son”, as almost a deliberate provocation of Monophysite and Byzantine sensitivities. It was not formally incorporated into Latin practice until 1014, but was a source of regular tension. Then in the 8th-century, the Iconoclasm Controversy proved a watershed moment in the papacy gravitating away from Constantinople. The Papacy, though not Iconodule in practice, remained steadfast in its support for the use of holy images, and resentful of such explicit interference in Church affairs by Byzantine emperors. In 731, Pope Gregory III condemned Iconoclasm outright at a synod, and in retaliation Emperor Leo III transferred southern Italy from papal jurisdiction to that of Constantinople. From this point on, the Great Schism was already a fact, though not yet formally recognised. By the 10th-century, the two churches were clashing in their rival efforts to convert the Eastern European Slavs. A good illustration is Bohemia (modern-day Czechia and Slovakia), which was first converted to Orthodox Christianity through the efforts of Cyril and Methodius, but then pressured into recognising papal jurisdiction by German encroachment. The religious frontiers created in this period have remained sensitive throughout European history; today Croatia and Serbia share a language, which is written in the Roman script by the Croatians, and in Cyrillic by the Serbians. After 1054, the archbishops of Rome and Contantinople continued to express hopes that a reunion was be possible, but subsequent historical events worked against them. In the course of the Fourth Crusaders (1202–04), Latin Crusaders captured Constantinople itself, looting the Basilica of Hagia Sophia and other Orthodox churches, and then converting them to Latin Catholic worship. The West could not have more brutally shown that it did not consider their Orthodox co-religionists to be part of their civilization, nor as even a part of Christendom. The East-West schism remains to this day, though an embrace between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in 1964 has generally been recognised as a symbolic gesture of friendship between the two Churches. At this time, they also officially lifted the nine-centuries-old mutual-excommunication of 1054.

Pope Leo IX was the first of a series of reforming popes, whose success was shown in their unprecedented power and influence. The Church not only acquired new independence and importance, but the Christian life had also gained a new temper from the 11th century. It became more intolerant and more aggressive, as shown in the fervour and moral exaltation of the Crusading Age, often a genuinely popular manifestation of religion. But new ways also aroused opposition. Some of it came from churchmen themselves, for bishops did not always appreciate papal interference in their affairs. The most spectacular opposition came in the great quarrel which has gone down in history as the Investiture Controversy of 1076, between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV of Imperial Germany. This inaugurated one of the great themes of medieval history; the power struggle between "Church and State". Perhaps strife was already inevitable. At the core of reform lay the ideal of an independent Church; it could only perform its task if free from lay interference. But kings claimed authority over their own kingdom and also the Church within its boundaries. On both sides of this struggle, there is much that now seems repellent: popes claiming the power to depose a monarch and trying to exercise it, occasionally with success; the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by an English king; the abduction of aged Pope Boniface VIII by a French king; or thepersecution of Europe's Jews. Yet it would also be one of the most creative arguments of the Middle Ages, that time and time again was to pull Europe back into a progressive path; a challenge to unchecked power. If royal power had limits, then what other limits on the powerful might there be?

Rise of the Normans[]

Duke Richard II of Normandy, remembered fondly by his subjects as Richard the Good. More than any other duke, he was responsible for creating the Norman identity.

When Charles III allowed Rollo's contingents of Scandinavian Vikings to settle in north France in 911, no one could have foreseen the deep political, cultural and military imprint that they would have on medieval Europe and beyond. The early Norse settlers and their French wives faced an uncertain future, with hostile neighbours and French kings always looking for a pretext to reclaim their lost territory. Rollo's son, William Longsword, came into conflict with neighbouring Flanders (modern-day Belgium), and was assassinated in 942. This led to a crisis in Normandy, with a 10-year-old boy succeeding as Duke Richard I (d. 996). The French king took the youth under his protection, but then reneged and seized his duchy. That might have been the end of Normandy, except Richard escaped from imprisonment, and invited Viking warbands to pillage the Seine Valley until the king got the message, returning the duchy to him. For the rest of his 49-year-reign, Richard concentrated on stabilizing his realm, and forging it into a fully functional medieval state, based on the French language and customs, feudal social structure and legal systems. As with everything they did, the Normans embraced Christianity with a fierce enthusiasm. Their ancestors had burn monasteries, but now Richard brought scholarly churchmen into Normandy from the Rhineland, and endowed monasteries and monastic schools with patronage. One of his favourite projects was the island monastery of Le Mont-Saint-Michel, which eventually became one of the most spectacular examples of Norman-Romanesque architecture. The duke imposed heavy feudal burdens on his ecclesiastical and lay fiefs, in order to supply his knights. The Normans adopted the French style of warfare, and became famed for their martial prowess; their armoured heavy cavalry charges were almost irresistible. Like their Viking ancestors, they displayed a love of fighting, an almost reckless courage, an extreme restlessness, and a craftiness that went hand-in-hand with outrageous treachery. In time, it would make them a wonderful machine for conquest. Richard also used marriage alliances to secure his duchy. He married the sister of Hugh Capet (987-996), and was a key supporter in his election as king of France. His daughter Emma married Ethelred "the Unready" of England, the marriage that later gave his great-grandson, William the Conqueror, a rather dubious claim to the English throne. Another of his daughters married the duke of neighbouring Brittany. It was under Richard's son, Duke Richard II (d. 1026), that the Normans fully gained their identity. French lords had called his father, "the Duke of the Pirates", due to his continued welcome of Viking warbands in Normandy to overwinter and sell their booty. Richard closed the Norman ports to them and commissioned a pro-French history of Normandy, which portrayed his ducal ancestors as morally upright Christian leaders who built the duchy, despite the treachery of their overlords and neighboring principalities; a work of propaganda at its finest, but broadly historically reliable. By the end of his reign, the Normans were, according to historian J. B. Bury, "in all essentials Frenchmen". Duke Robert I (d. 1035) was active in French politics well outside his borders, intervening in dynastic disputes in Flanders and Brittany, and sheltering Henry I of France (1031-60) during a civil war with his younger brother. Robert's son would be the most famous Norman in history, William the Conqueror, whose conquest of England in 1066 shaped European politics for centuries. Norman adventurers would meanwhile go on to conquer southern Italy and Sicily from the Muslims and Byzantines, provide much of the firepower of the First Crusade to the Holy Land, and contribute to the Spanish Reconquista.

Norman Conquest of England[]

England diocese map post 950.jpg

Following the unification of England in 925 or so, the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a productive few decades. A measure of administrative uniformity was established over the entire kingdom, with the realm divided into shire-borough-hundred pattern set-up by Alfred the Great in Wessex. Several new monasteries were founded, where older houses had perished in the Viking invasions. It was only when ability failed in Alfred’s line that the England came to grief again. During the reign of Ethelred "the Unready" (978-1013), a fresh wave of Danish Viking attacks against England steadily increased in intensity. Some historians speculate that it was in part spurred by disaffected Danes, resentful at the efforts of Harald Bluetooth (d. 986) to impose Christianity upon Denmark. In 991, a sizeable Danish fleet under Olaf Tryggvason, later king of Norway, began a sustained campaign in south-eastern England. After a major defeat at the Battle of Maldon (August 991), Ethelred began to pay them an annual bribe, known as Danegeld. The judgement of history has not been kind to Ethelred, who has been known as Ethelred the Unready ever since; somewhat unfairly since many, if not most, of his predecessors had paid such bribes, including the vaunted Alfred. But the sums involved were now colossal. It was neither popular with his subjects, nor an effective solution since it merely encouraged the Danes to come back for more. Meanwhile, across the Channel in Normandy, the Viking were still receiving a friendly reception to overwinter and sell their booty. Desperate to close the Norman ports, Ethelred agreed to marry Emma of Normandy, the sister of Duke Richard II (d. 1026), in return for shutting the door to the Vikings. Unfortunately, this diplomatic coup seems to have gone straight to the English king's head. In November 1002, he ordered the St. Brice's Day Massacre of Danish settlers in England; historians believe there was significant loss of life, though evidence is lacking on any specific estimates. It is said that the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (d. 1014) was among the victims. The inevitable response came in 1013, when Sweyn personally led an invasion of England, intend on claiming to throne himself. He found an unexpectedly easy conquest; the English were tired of their weak king, and Sweyn, as a Christian, was not met with the usual suspicion accorded a Viking. By the end of the year, the Dane was sitting on the English throne, and Ethelred was living in exile with his wife's family in Normandy.

The most famous legend of King Cnut has him believing he could hold back the tide. This episode is usually misinterpreted. In fact it was a pious act; Cnut was demonstrating to his flattering courtiers that a king's power is vain compared to the supreme power of God.

The situation in England suddenly changed when Sweyn Forkbeard died in February 1014. Ethelred returned from Normandy to contest the crown against Sweyn's son, Cnut, but by 1016, after a complex and volatile struggle, Ethelred was dead, and Cnut the Great (1016-35) was crowned king of England. By all accounts, Cnut ruled England both wisely and well. He created his own aristocracy out of a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Danish families. To remove the threat of Normandy supporting Ethelred's sons, Cnut agreed to marry Ethelred's widow, Emma of Normandy. There thus emerged the complex links between the royal families of England, Normandy, and Denmark that resulted in 1066; the future Edward "the Confessor" of England had Cnut as a stepfather, and Richard II of Normandy as an uncle. Under Cnut, England became part of a great Danish empire, that eventually included Norway and Sweden too. These overseas campaigns meant that the prows of Viking longships were turned on Scandinavia, and England enjoyed a welcome period of peace. Cities such as London and York flourished on the trade across the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and on to Ireland, where the Danes still had a strong presence even after the Battle of Clontarf. When Cnut died in 1035, there was no attempt to restore the Anglo-Saxon line. He was succeeded by his two own sons, Harold Harefoot (d. 1040) and Harthacnut (d. 1042), but both were short-lived, allowing the crown to passed to Cnut's stepson, Edward the Confessor (1042-66), the natural son of Ethelred the Unready. It is easy to regard Edward’s reign as a prelude to the three-way succession crisis of 1066. At the time, William the Conqueror was only 14-years-old, while Danish king Magnus (d. 1047) was prevented from pressing his own claim by domestic troubles, a claim later inherited by Harald Hardrada. Edward's reign was troubled throughout. With such a vast realm, Cnut had naturally delegated considerable power to those aristocrats who had earned his trust, most importantly Earl Godwin of Wessex (d. 1053). Yet, Edward had lived most of his life in exile in Normandy. On returning to England as king, he brought several Norman relatives and friends into his administration. A crisis arose in 1051, when the king appointed a Norman clergyman as archbishop of Canterbury, over a relative of Earl Godwin. When Godwin revolted, Edward tried to bring to heel his over-mighty vassal, but the other great nobles, unwilling to face civil war, forced the king to come to terms. The Godwin family returned to prominence under Harold Godwinson (d. 1066), who succeeded his father in 1053, and proved himself a good soldier. He halted Welsh incursions into England under Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Meanwhile, Edward failed to produce an heir, and an English succession crisis loomed. The traditional explanation is that Edward was deeply pious and took a vow of chastity, though this is almost entirely based on a biography commissioned by his widow, who would have good cause to foster the idea that the childless marriage was not her fault. Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, and was, appropriately enough, buried in the magnificent cathedral he had commissioned, Westminster Abbey, built on the same design as Jumièges Abbey in Normandy. On his deathbed, Edward probably named Harold Godwinson his successor. Harold II Godwinson (January-October 1066) was almost universally accepted by the Anglo-Saxon nobility, but two of the most powerful rulers in Europe also had claims to the English throne, even if both were rather dubious.

A stained glass window from Kirkwall Cathedral, Orkney showing Harald Hardrada, king of Norway.

The first contender King Harald Hardrada of Norway (d. 1066) was one of the most colourful characters of the Middle Age. At 15-years-old, Harald fought and was badly wounded at the Battle of Stiklestad (1030), where his brother, Olaf Haraldsson, lost the throne of Norway to Cnut the Great. Harald was forced into exile, and spent some time in the army of Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev, before moving on to Constantinople. There, he soon rose to become commander of the famous Varangian Guard. He saw action in the Balkans, in Asia Minor, in Sicily, possibly in the Holy Land, and in Constantinople itself during internal revolts. After getting rich in Byzantine service, Harald returned to Norway in 1046 to reclaim his brother's lost throne. Unfortunately, in his absence, the Norwegian throne had already been recovered from the Danes by Olaf's son, Magnus. Undeterred, Harald contested the crown, until Magnus, unwilling to fight his uncle, agreed to share the kingship with Harald. The co-rule ended abruptly less than a year later with Magnus' death, and Harald went on to rule Norway alone for the next 20 years with considerable success. Harald's claim to the English crown was based on a supposed promise by Cnut's sons to restore the earlier Anglo-Scandinavian empire. Harald claimed the Danish throne too, and raided Denmark in traditional Viking style almost every year of his reign, but was never able to conquer it.

Statue of William the Conqueror at Falaise in Normandy, by Louis Rochet (1851).

Harald Hardrada would, of course, ultimately lose out in 1066 to the second claimant, William the Conqueror (1035-87). The succession of any medieval ruler was always an invitation to chaos, and William's more than most. He was the only son of Robert I of Normandy (1027-35) and his mistress Herleva; he was sometimes referred to as William the Bastard. However, three of the first six dukes of Normandy had been illegitimate sons, so this was no bar to succession. But William was also just eight-years-old. With a child on the throne, Normandy quickly descended into anarchy, as nobles carved-out virtually independent fiefdoms for themselves, built unauthorised castles, and waged private wars against one another. His relatives were no help, fighting among themselves over the regency. Three of the young duke’s guardians died violent deaths, and he narrowly escaped assassination himself on more than one occasion. In 1042, William was fifteen, a man by the standards of the day, and ready to assert himself in the affairs of his duchy. It is not surprising that William emerged as a formidable personality; he must have had reserves of strength to survive such a childhood. He had no patience for the fractious regency which had held the reins of power for him. Dismissing the entire council, he surrounded himself with new advisors, mostly young and talented individuals who would stay with him for the rest of his life; and become in time some of the largest landowners in England. William's attempt to bring his disobedient vassals to heel led to a the period of almost continuous warfare between 1046 and '55. A decisive moment came at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes (1047), where William defeated a coalition of Norman rebels with the aid of King Henry I of France (1031-60); the French king had good reason to want a weak young duke, propped-up by royal power. After the battle, William held a great peace council near the battlefield, where the assembled nobles swore oaths to respect the duke's peace. Over the next few years, he slowly and methodically recover his lost ducal prestige, rights, and revenues, and by the 1050s, he was able to participate in events outside his own duchy. In 1051, he married Matilda of Flanders, a formidable personality in her own right, who brought him a powerful ally; unusually for a Norman duke, they would remain faithful to one another their whole lives. At first the Pope forbade the marriage because the pair were distant cousins, but they got married anyway and then did penance by commissioning the twin cathedrals of Caen, Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames. William also fought a series of campaigns, in support of the French king, against the growing power of the Count of Anjou. However, alliances shifted quickly in feudal Europe. By 1054, Henry and Anjou had reconciled, and launched a joint invasion of Normandy. This invasion was particularly ill-timed for William, coinciding with yet another revolt led by his two uncles. William pursued a strategy of falling back and bidding his time, which lulled the French king into complacency. At the Battle of Morteme (1054), William launched a devastating surprise night-time attack on the French king's camp, that forced him to withdraw in disarray with heavy losses. With this the revolt also collapsed, leaving William with complete mastery of Normandy, and a fearsome military reputation to boot. But King Henry wasn't finished. He again invaded Normandy in 1057, determined to bringing this upstart duke to heel. William again refused to engage until an opportunity presented itself, as the royal army was crossing the Dives River. With half the army across, he pounced and Henry was forced to watch impotently from the other side as the disastrous Battle of Varaville (August 1057) unfolded. Three years later, the French king was dead, and eight-year-old Philip I of France (1060-1108) was on the throne, under the regency of William’s father-in-law, Robert of Flanders. The Count of Anjou were also dead, and William took advantage of the subsequent succession crisis by part of northern Anjou. For the first time in his life, William was free from external threats and secure in the most powerful, consolidated duchy in France. Brimming with confidence, he turned his eyes across the Channel, to perhaps the largest coherent states in Western Europe.


William had no serious claim to the English throne at all. He was a first cousin of Edward the Confessor, through his great aunt, Emma of Normandy. William claimed that Edward had once promised him the English throne. In a further twist to William’s claim, Harold Godwinson had visited Normandy around 1064 to negotiate the release of his imprisoned brother. At least according to Norman chroniclers, a condition of the release was that Harold swore an oath on holy relics to support William’s claim. Thus, William felt wronged when Harold Godwinson was crowned, and immediately began preparing a full-scale military invasion of England. William received the blessing of the Pope, who had been at loggerheads with England’s archbishop of Canterbury for some years. This allowed him to assemble an invasion force from all across northern France, as well as his own territory of Normandy; usually estimated at 8,000 men, including 2,000 cavalry, with a fleet of 400 ships. Meanwhile in England, King Harold Godwinson assembled his own army on the south coast, but the invasion, when came, arrived not from Normandy, but from Norway. Without warning, King Harald Hardrada of Norway (1046-66) invaded northern England to press his own claim to the English throne. He easily overran the local forces in Northumbia, and seized York. However, King Harold Godwinson responded decisively, force-marching his army 200-miles north in an astonishing four days. The sudden appearance of the English army caught the Norwegians completely by surprise. With the benefit of hindsight, Hardrada should have retreated to his ship to regroup, but, with his blood was up, he heedlessly plunged into the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 1066). Even with just half his army and ill-prepared, the Norwegians were a formidable foes, and the battle raged for hours, but in the end Harald along with most of the Norwegians were slain; of 240 ships, only 24 were needed to carry the survivors home. Historians sometime use this battle to mark the end of the Viking Age. Harold Godwinson had little time to savoir his victory. Just three days later, William of Normandy landed his own invasion force unopposed on the south coast, after a series of delays and unfavourable winds. Repeating his epic march, Harold Godwinson was back in London four days later to plan the defence of the realm. On Saturday 14 October 1066, a single battle between less than twenty-thousand men would changed the course of history in England and beyond; the Battle of Hastings (October 1066). The English forces formed-up on foot as a shield wall, the traditional way of fighting, tried and tested over the centuries. Confronting them was something startlingly new in English warfare. A Norman army consisting of mounted cavalry, infantry, and archers, roughly proportioned 1-2-1. Neverthess again and again, Harold's shield-wall held as William's cavalry charges was thrown back. There were heavy casualties on both sides; two of Harold's brothers were slain, while William himself had three horse cut from under him. But as the day wore on, Norman charges and archers took their tole, and the shield-wall began to shrink in on itself. Then in the late afternoon, a chance arrow hit and killed Harold Godwinson; according to tradition, striking him in the eye, though the Bayeux tapestry is the only evidence of this. When Harold's standard fell, the end came quickly; the shield-wall broke and a rout ensued. With no one of stature left to raise a new army, William the Conqueror (1066-87) met little resistance on his march on London, where he was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. It had been an eventful year for the new cathedral, with one royal funeral and two coronations.

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing the final stages of the Battle of Hastings.

William secured his new kingdom with exemplary thoroughness. In truth, victory was not achieved in a day, and resistance continued for several years: the sons of Harold Godwinson tried to invade from exile in Ireland several times; a cousin of Edward the Confessor stirred up trouble from exile in Scotland; and guerilla fighters such as the legendary Hereward the Wake repeatedly tried to throw-off the "Norman Yoke". The most serious threat was in the north, where the populace had much stronger links with Scandinavia than Normandy. William decided to starve the rebels into submission by laying waste to the countryside, in the so-called Harrying of the North (1069–71). Contemporary chronicles vividly record how William celebrated Christmas of 1069 in "the ruins of York". These revolts meanwhile provided the pretext for the widespread confiscation of land, to be redistributed among William's Norman followers. To secure his hold on the country, the English landscape was soon dotted with hundreds of wooden and earth castles. These were unlike anything seen in England before; Anglo-Saxon fortifications were walled towns to shelter the populace from raiders, while Norman motte-and-bailey castles were compact military bases designed to entrench the power of the new ruling class. Many of these early castles would later be replaced by monumental towers of stone, the most famous being the White Tower, the central keep of the Tower of London. By 1080, the Norman were able to celebrate their conquest of England as a fait accompli, with the commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry. William went on to rule with unusual vigour. A few years after the Conquest, his government carried out one of the most remarkable administrative acts of the Middle Ages, a huge survey of England for royal purposes. The document acquired the name Domesday Book (1086), an allusion to the Day of Judgement because the commissioners’ findings were final. The evidence was taken from every shire and hundred, listing the landholdings of each noble, who owned the land before the conquest, its value, its tax assessment, and the number of peasants, ploughs, and any other resources; towns were listed separately. Its minuteness deeply impressed the Anglo-Saxon chronicler who bitterly noted that not an ox, cow or pig escaped the notice of William’s men. Domesday starkly reveals the dispossession of almost the entire Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, replacing them with Norman and French earls, barons, and knights: perhaps the most complete destruction of a ruling class there has ever been in Europe, up to 1917. The clergy did not escape either, with practically every English bishop replaced by Norman ones. William and his direct family accumulated about 20% of all the land in England; 50% was held by vassals of the crown; and 25% was in the hands of the Church; thus leaving a bare 5% to the surviving Anglo-Saxon nobility. Several prominent Anglo-Saxon nobles fled into exile in Scotland, most notably Margaret of Wessex who married King Malcolm III Dunkeld of Scotland (1058-93). This increased cultural influence from the south helped develop Scotland into a more centralised, civilized, and prosperous kingdom capable of resisting Norman England. Other Anglo-Saxon exiles travelled all the way to the Byzantium, where they became a significant contingent of the Varangian Guard, until then a largely Scandinavian corps. Throughout his reign, William was seen as a foreign tyrant to his English subjects. It seems the feelings were reciprocated. He never bothered to learn the language, and spent as much time as he dared in Normandy. Tellingly, William divided his realm upon his death in 1087, leaving his favourite part of the domain to his eldest son, while the English throne passed to the younger son.

The White Tower, the heart of the Tower of London. It was begun by William the Conqueror in 1070s, and took around 20 years to build, with masons imported from Normandy, and most of the actual labour provided by Englishmen. William intended his mighty castle to be a potent reminder of Norman power.

The Normans inherited what was by Western standards a tight political system, based on a county-shire subdivision that covered the entire realm, local sheriffs responsible for catching / trying criminals and raising infantry levies, and even an embryonic taxation system, first introduced by Ethelred to pay the Danegeld. The English state remained effective under William and his two sons, William II (1087-1100) and then Henry I (1100-1135). Norman rule was often a harsh, but there was a sense of fair dealing too. On his coronation, Henry issued a charter of liberties, laying-out various commitment regarding the treatment of his vassal and church officials, which has been seen as an early precursor of Magna Carta, a century later. But the essential integrity of royal authority was not compromised, and central government was steadily strengthen with additional institutions. The Royal Exchequer was established to account for royal revenue; the earliest mention appears in a royal writ of 1110. The procedure involved the summoning of each sheriff from all over England, who was required to account for the income of his shire; the name Exchequer refers to the chequer-pattern counting-cloth used to perform calculations. Circuit court judges were sent out into the shires to inspect local judicial assemblies, to hear appeals to the crown, and work towards uniform legal procedures throughout the realm. The impact of Norman rule on English society is difficult to assess. One of the more obvious shifts was the introduction of French as the language of the ruling classes: Edward I (d. 1307) was the first king to habitually speak English again. Thousands of French words would eventually enter the English language, which explains why the modern language has so many different words with the same meaning; for instance "royal" from the French and "king" from Old English, or "beef" from the French and "cow" from Old English, or "amorous" from the French and "loving" from Old English. Another shift was the usage of names common in France. Today Anglo-Saxon names such as Egbert, Athelstan, and Ethelred seem odd, while French names like William, Robert and Richard sound quintessentially English. The English Church was also brought more fully into line with developments on the continent: the first reforming Cluniac monastery was established at Lewes in 1077, and stone cathedrals began to be built in the Norman-Romanesque style, including Winchester, York, and Canterbury. Meanwhile, in 1106, King Henry I reunited his father's realm of England and Normandy, after a protracted struggles with his brothers; he probably assassinated his brother William during a hunting trip, and certainly ousted his other brother Robert in battle. Yet the Duke of Normandy had always been a vassal of the French king, and the fact that they were kings of England in their own rights didn't change that. In the coming centuries, the political and economic intertwining of England and France would often have drastic consequences, especially when the French monarchy began to reassert itself in the 13th-century. The roots of Hundred Years’ War in the 14th-century can ultimately be traced back to the Norman conquest of 1066.

William's sons worked much harder to smooth the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Norman societies, and gradually the cross-cultural differences evaporated. Henry himself married a Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, and encouraged the men of his court to do the same. When the Normans had settled in France in 911, they were Vikings; when they conquered England in 1066, they were Frenchmen; and when they later went on to invade Ireland in 1169, they were in all essentials Englishmen. But the direct line of William the Conquerors lasted only his two sons: William II never married and there is speculation that he might have been homosexual; and the only son of Henry I famously died in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120. Henry's death in 1035 led to a protracted dynastic civil war, known to history as The Anarchy.

Norman Conquest of Southern Italy[]


Viewed on the map, the Italian peninsula seems the most natural of locations for a single kingdom; or the secure heart of an empire as in Roman time. It was protected from mainland Europe by the Alps, and on all other sides by the sea. In fact, its geographical position had precisely the opposite effect, constantly nibbled at by neighbours. By the 9th century, Italy was a crowded and ever-shifting hodgepodge of rival petty-states. The north was supposedly an integral part of the Holy Roman Empire, but Germany was the real basis of their kingship, and king-emperors rarely visited Italy except to be crowned. The south was shared the remnants of Justinian's Byzantine holdings and Lombard duchies. The only really stable element was the Papal State, running across the middle of the peninsula from Rome and Ravenna. Over the whole fell the shadow of destructive raids by the pagan nomadic Magyars (Hungarians) from the north, and Muslim sea-borne raiders up-and-down the coast from Sicily, which the Arabs had finally conquered in 902, and went on to rule for a century-and-a-half. All of Mediterranean Europe had a complex relationship with the Arabs, who appeared to them as traders in fine eastern goods, as often as freebooters.


The 11th-century signalled the end of Italy's darkest period. The Magyars were checked at the Battle of Lechfeld (955); then they began to be Christianized. Under the Macedonian Dynasty, the Byzantine imperial navy clearing the seas of Muslim pirates, and Mediterranean trade steadily picked. The revival of commerce led to a rebirth of the old Roman cities, and the establishment of new ones. The period after 1000 was turbulent for the peninsula, even by Italian standards. In the north, the cities grew prosperous and insolent towards meddling in their internal affairs, asserting their independence as city-states. In southern Italy, Byzantine power went into sharp decline after the death of Emperor Basil II (d. 1025), with the Lombards, Muslims, Germans, and the Papacy all trying to take advantage. But it was a group of newcomers who benefited most from the chaos; the Normans. The Norman conquest of southern Italy was very different from that of England; the latter was an organised military operation under the Duke of Normandy, while the former was the achieved piecemeal by Norman adventurers from the lesser nobility. It is all the more remarkable for being largely the work of one family, that of a lowly knight called Tancred de Hauteville, one of Normandy’s more miserable villages. Almost nothing is known about Tancred himself, except that he had twelve sons, and not nearly enough of an inheritance to go around. The family was no doubt aware of the opportunities for fighting-men in southern Italy, since pilgrims from Normandy were regular visitors at the shrine to the Archangel Michael at Monte Gargano; the warrior-saint had a special importance to the Normans. The first of the Hauteville brothers to make his name in Italy was William. Norman mercenaries had been coming to southern Italy in small groups before the 1020s, to offter their services to all sides, though the Lombards usually made the most generous employers. Having arrived in 1035, William de Hauteville fought first for the Byzantines against Muslims, then for the Lombards against the Byzantines, and by 1042 had carved-out a small fiefdom for himself around Melfi. At first the locals welcomed the Normans as liberators, eager to escape the Byzantine tax-collectors, but soon discovered the Normans were a good deal worse. They quickly gained a reputation for rapacious greed and imaginative brutality, a reputation they strove to live up to; enemies surrendered to them more easily. Eventually tales of Norman robbery, rape, and murder reached the ears of the most powerful figure in Italy, the Papacy. Only Pope Leo IX had the prestige to pull together an alliance from the scattered powers of Italy to drive-off the troublesome Normans. Leo personally led the allied army, but suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Civitate (June 1053) and was captured. The pious Normans treated the pope with every deference, but he was no less their prisoner; Norman religious fervor rarely got in the way of their driving ambition. Pope Leo was held for nine months until he formally acknowledged the Norman's territorial holdings, later known as the Duchy of Apulia and Calabria. By now, it was clear that in terms of brute strength and fighting ability, the Normans were without peer; all they lacked was an effective leader. The Normans of Italy found just such a man in William's younger brother, Robert "Guiscard" de Hauteville (d. 1085). Having arrived in southern Italy in 1047 with just 35 men, Robert quickly displayed the cunning that would earn him the nickname Guiscard ("the fox"). From his base at Scribla, over the next 20-years, Guiscard proved one of the most brilliant generals the Normans ever produced. With the Byzantine power in the midst of the specacular decline, one town after another fell to the Guiscard, either submitting without a fight or falling prey to clever ruses. In 1071, Guiscard took Bari, the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy, permanently bringing to an end the presence of the Roman Empire on Italian shores. By then, the Normans were already looking beyond the peninsula to Muslim Sicily. At the time, Fatimid Sicily was ripe for conquest, racked by civil war between Arab and Moorish elements of the army. Guiscard first invaded Sicily in 1061, establishing a foothold in Messina, and securing it by defeating a Muslim army at the Battle of Cerami (June 1063). But Sicily was a difficult island to conquer, and progress was slow and gruelling. The great city of Palermo was besieged for the first time in 1064, but the Normans unknowingly made their camp on a hillside infested with tarantulas. The city finally fell in 1072, Trapani was in their hands by 1077, Syracuse in 1086, and the last Muslim stronghold in Sicily, Noto, in February 1091.

An illustration by Peter of Eboli showing the cultural melting pot of Norman Sicily, with the Greeks on the left distinguished by their dark beards, the Muslims in the centre with neat beards and turbans, and the clean-shaven Latin Christians on the right.

Roger I Hauteville (1071-1198), the first Norman ruler of Sicily, set the pattern that would characterise the island well into the 13th-century. He had conquered the island for Latin Christianity, but continued the Muslim tradition of tolerance for all faiths. Latin Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews all found employment in his administration as nowhere else in medieval Europe, except Muslim Spain. The vitality of this multi-cultural melting-pot is evident in the exquisite architecture of the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in Palermo. The chapel harmoniously encapsulates a variety of styles: the walls are covered in bright mosaic in the Byzantine tradition; the vaulted ceiling carved and painted with intricate patterns is typical of Muslim design; and the sturdy round arches supporting the walls are from Norman-Romanesque architecture. Sicily became one of the most important centres of learning in Europe, producing such wonders as the Tabula Rogeriana ("The Book of Roger"), a world atlas with illustrations and commentaries by the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (d. 1165). It contained such details as dual sources of the Nile, the coast of Ghana, the caste system of India, and rice cultivation in China; and remained the most accurate map of the world until the Age of Discovery. The map was commissioned by Roger II Hauteville (1105-54), who finally unified all the Norman lands in southern Italy into a single kingdom. The Norman conquests had been a chaotic and unplanned affair, with different Normans establishing their own fiefdoms, both large and small, and constantly quarreling among themselves. In wars between 1127 and 1144, Roger united all the Norman principalities, and was recognised as its king by the pope in 1130. This powerful kingdom, carved-out by a few thousand Norman knights of lowly birth, would be a powerful example to the Crusaders of what could be achieved in the Holy Lands.

Imperial Germany and the Church[]


In 1000, the Holy Roman Empire was by far the largest and militarily strongest Western power. It covered not just Germany, but what is now the Netherlands, Luxembourg, part of Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and northern Italy. When the Saxon dynasty of Otto the Great finally petered-out in 1024, the German nobility elected a female-line descendant, Conrad II of Franconia (1024-37); the first of the Salian Dynasty (1024-1125). The first two Salian king-emperors, Conrad and his son Henry III (1037–56), managed to keep the royal hegemony solid. They maintained the tradition of exercising power throughout imperial Germany including northern Italy, moving around the empire much as the preceding Ottonians or Carolingians had done. However, king-emperors from this time rarely went south of the Alps except to be crowned, and Saxony, now that it was no longer the royal power-centre, felt its distance from the rest of the kingdom and resentful of the tight imperial control. Like the Ottonians, the Salians continued to build-up the German Church as a vehicle of imperial control, favouring bishops over nobles for important post across the empire. Indeed, they often determined who was appointed to high clerical offices. Even the Popes in Rome seemed to become mere imperial bishops; dismissed at will, and replaced with candidates more to the emperor's liking. For all that, the German king-emperors were the Church’s protector who thought they knew what was best for it, not its governor; a protector the Papacy had less and less need of, now that the Lombards and Magyars had been pacified.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV walked to Canossa Castle, where Pope Gregory VII was staying. He was left waiting at the gate for three full days, before the pope revoked his excommunication.

From the middle of the 11th-century, imperial hegemony weakened rapidly. The pious Henry III (1046-1056) was deeply concerned with the spiritual health of the Church, and lent his support to the Gregorian Reform movement; Pope Leo IX (1049-54) was one of his nominees. In 1056, however, Henry committed that cardinal error for any medieval king; he died, leaving the throne to his six-year-old son Henry IV (1056-1105). During Henry IV's minority, everything was up for grabs again. The German nobles began asserting their autonomy and jockeying amongst themselves, while the pagan Slavic tribes beyond the Elbe began raiding imperial territory, at one point plundering Hamburg. Meanwhile in Rome, the idea of a Church independent from secular interference was allowed to gather momentum. The battle-lines of what would become known as Investiture Controversy (1076-1122) were drawn by Pope Nicholas II (1059-61). In a papal bull of 1059, Nicholas reformed the system of papal election, establishing the College of Cardinals as the sole electors of all future popes; imperial influence was clearly his target. At the same time, he sought new allies to protect the Papacy, negotiating an alliance with the Normans of southern Italy. Just six years earlier Pope Leo IX had taken-up arms to drive-off the Normans, but now Pope Nicholas granted them feudal rights and legitimacy, in return for obligations to Rome. In 1065, Henry IV was 15-years-old, a man by the standards of the day, and ready to assert himself in the affairs of his empire. He endeavoured with considerable success to recover the royal prerogative that had been lost during his minority, bringing Saxony to heel in 1069, and crossing the Elbe to punish the Slavs. However, Henry faced a formidable political rival in Pope Gregory VII (1073-85). The temperament of Gregory was no emollient in this delicate situation; a man of great personal and moral courage, but likely to provoke conflict without too nice a regard for the consequences. Once elected, he took the papal throne without imperial assent, simply informing Henry IV of the fact. Two years later, he issued a decree forbidding any layman from investing a cleric with a bishopric or other ecclesiastical office; that is, to invest the new bishop with his ring and staff of office. This made the Investiture Crisis an overtly political struggle; as the best educated members of medieval society, the clergy were invaluable as royal servants, particularly in imperial Germany. Moreover, Henry IV's predecessors had lavished bishoprics and abbeys with vast estates, as a means of undermining the regional autonomy of their feudal vassals; the Church would thus retain its feudal wealth, while being freed of its feudal obligations. The quarrel escalated rapidly. Pope Gregory excommunicated several prominent clerics in Henry's court, accusing them, probably correction, of Simony (the buying of ecclesiastical offices). Henry responded at first through the Church itself: he appointed a new bishop of Milan, even though a different candidate had already been chosen by the pope, and then summoned a church synod at Worms, where two-thirds of the German bishops declared Pope Gregory's election invalid. This earned Henry excommunication; the first time for reigning monarch since Roman Emperor Theodosius seven-centuries earlier. In a believing age, this was a terrifying sentence, forbidding administration of any of the sacraments while the king remained unreconciled; men and women could not celebrate the Eucharist, have their children baptized, or obtain absolution for their own sins. Politically the consequences were equally serious, for the Church was the final adjudicator of oaths of allegiance; technically, all of Henry's feudal vassals were freed of their fealty at a stroke. The result was that Henry had to give way. To avoid trial before the German bishops presided over by Gregory, he undertook a humiliating winter journey, which went down as one of the most iconic images of the Middle Ages. In January 1077, with only his family and a small retinue, the Holy Roman Emperor crossed the snowbound Alps into northern Italy, where he spent three days standing barefoot in a hair-shirt before the castle of Canossa, until Gregory finally relented and received him back into the Church. It didn't work, for opportunistic German nobles revolted anyway, most seriously in the Great Saxon Revolt (1077-88) which saw Duke Rudolf of Rheinfeld elected as a rival anti-king. But Pope Gregory had not really won; his position was too extreme. He had asserted a revolutionary doctrine that kings were but officers who could be removed when the pope judged them unfit or unworthy; while Gregory himself should be judged by no man. This was almost unthinkably subversive to men whose moral horizons were dominated by the sacredness of oaths. Kings William I of England and Philip II of France made their feelings abundantly clear that they would continue investing bishops in their own realms. Meanwhile in Germany, Henry held the geographically central position, which prevented his enemies from uniting against him. At the Battle on the Elster (October 1080), Rudolf of Rheinfelden was defeated and slain, and the revolt lost much of its momentum. By 1081, Henry was able to invade Italy, and besiege Rome. The city finally submitted at the end of 1082, though Pope Gregory himself remained secure in his virtually impregnable fortress of Castel Sant'Angelo. It was at this point that his Norman ally Robert Guiscard finally responded to the pope's appeal for help, having been forced to abandon his own campaign in Byzantine Greece. The imperial forces withdrew from Rome before the Normans arrived. However, on finding Rome virtually defenceless, Robert's troops sacked the Eternal City so violently that Gregory lost all support. He was forced to flee Rome with his Norman rescuers, and died a year later still in exile.

The Concordat of Worms.(1122) between Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and Pope Callixtus II.

Investiture rumbled on as an issue for the next fifty years, Though Gregory's successors acted less dramatically, they steadily pressed papal claims to papal advantage. The quarrel continued to provide a pretext for a opportunistic revolts in Germany that gradually sapped imperial authority, and Henry's successor, Henry V (1099-1125), had to agree to the Concordat of Worms (1122), which established a subtle distinction between the spiritual and secular elements of high clerical offices. Although diplomatically disguised, the Concordat was clearly a victory for the papacy, leaving the Emperor with a theoretical veto on a new pope but no more; the Church would henceforth be an independent institution. More would be heard of the distinction, or even superiority, of papal power in the next two centuries. Urban II used the First Crusade to become the diplomatic leader of Europe’s lay monarchs; they looked to Rome, not the empire. England would witness another dramatic quarrel that culminated in the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. It was only in the 13th-century, that the ascendant papacy finally met its match in Philip IV of France. Until then, the challenge thrown-down by the Church forced secular rulers to seek new foundations for their position, spurring the development of true bureaucratic states with royal officials paid for through taxation, rather than clergymen. In the Holy Roman Empire, the real winners of the Investiture Controversy were the German nobility and Italian cities, who took advantage of the decades-long struggle to strengthen their own independence from the king-emperor. Imperial authority was weakened, but it could still be revived by a strong ambitious emperor, like Frederick Barbarossa (1165-97). It was only after 1254 that Germany fragmented irreversibly into a tapestry of effectively autonomous principalities, with the holder of the imperial crown as little more than a figurehead.

The Spanish Reconquest[]


The Reconquista (718-1492), the Christian reconquest of Spain, had been a dream ever since the Muslim conquest of the early-8th-century, when Christian Visigoths had clung-on in the mountainous northern fringe of the peninsula, alongside the ever-independent Basques. It would take more than seven centuries of stirring victories, grievous reverses, and missed opportunities to complete. Yet the reality of the reconquest was far from the united Christian front that later chroniclers would have you believe. It was complicated by a high degree of intermingling of the Christian and Muslim communities in the early centuries. The Islamic world was remarkable for its tolerance of other religions. Arabic sources mark clear that Christians often held high offices in Muslim Spain (or Al-Andalus), and it was not uncommon for Muslim rulers to have Christian-born wives or mothers. Indeed, one devout group of Christians was so incensed by the contented attitude of their fellow believers under Islamic rule, that they went to great lengths to martyr themselves in the marketplace in Cordoba in around 850. Meanwhile, the northern Christian kingdoms needed to maintain good relations with their Muslim neighbours simply to survive, and did not hesitate to make alliances with the infidels. In any case, the Christian states were almost as often at war against one another, as against the Muslims. The two religions, or three for there were many Jews living in Spain, prospered regardless of whether their ruler was Muslim or Christian. This positive cross-cultural exchange was of enormous importance to Europe; Spain, along with Norman Sicily, were doors to the learning and science of the East. Indeed the Islamic world probably contributed as much as the Christian Church to helping West Europe emerge from the Dark Ages. This included Latin translations of the Classical Greek works from Arabic versions, as well as original Muslim advances made during the Islamic Golden Age, especially in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, science, medicine, and philosophy. Chinese innovations such as paper-making and gunpowder also came along the Silk Road via the Muslim world. Then there were more immediately practical influences: the pointed arch was copied in Gothic architecture; musical instruments such as the lute, the guitar and the violin all originated in Islamic societies; Western sailors adopted the triangular sail and various navigation instruments developed by Arabs; Italian merchants learned the main practices of banking and accountancy from Egyptian traders; Islamic knowledge in crop rotation, animal husbandry, and irrigation transmitted to Europe helped to improve agricultural techniques; various fruits and vegetables were defused to Europe via the Muslim world, some from as far as eastern Africa, India, and China. Wherever they encountered Islam, western Europeans found things to admire. One habit acquired by some Crusaders was that of taking more frequent baths. This may have been unfortunate, for it added the taint of religious infidelity to bathing; cleanliness had not yet achieved its later association with godliness.

Depiction of the conquest of Toledo by Alfonso VI in 1085 from Plaza de España in Seville. The recovery of the ancient seat of the Visigothic kingdom was a very important landmark in the Reconquista.

The early Reconquista was a stuttering affair. The Christians nibbled away successfully at Umayyad Spain (756-1031) whenever it was distracted by internal problems. An important ingredient was provided by the cult of Santiago, the Apostle James. St. James had suffered martyrdom in Jerusalem in 44 AD, but the saint's bones were miraculously discovered in north-western Spain in about 820. According to legend, his remains were transported there for burial by his followers on a rudderless ship with no sails. The city of Santiago de Compostela grew around the site, and quickly became the third most popular pilgrimage goal in Christendom, after Rome and Jerusalem. St. James became the special protector of fighters in the Reconquista, while Compostela opened a crucial channel of communication between northern Spain and the rest of Christendom. In the early-9th-century, Charlemagne achieved a small step in the reconquest by conquering the region around Barcelona from the Muslims, in order to secure the Frankish realm from Muslim raiders. The blackest moment for medieval Christian Spain came in the late-10th-century, when the north was terrorised by the fearsome Muslim general Abu 'Amir al-Mansur (d. 1002); known as Almanzor in the West. His campaigns plundered Barcelona in 985, Leon in 988, and even the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in 997. The Muslims looked as if their might go further, to conquer the whole peninsula, but this did not happen. After Almanzor's death, the weak Caliph of Cordoba, that he had dominated, lost control of the Moorish mercenaries and Muslim aristocracy. In 1009, the Caliph was ousted in a coup, ushering in two-decades of civil war and anarchy. By 1031, the Umayyad Caliphate had disintegrated into dozens of autonomous Muslim principalities, known as Taifas, that warred against one another. The Taifa Period (1031-86) has long been seen as one of political failure, but this is not entirely true. These were, for the most part, compact and well-governed states, that generated intense intellectual and literary activity by drawing upon a rich variety of political experiences; recalling somewhat Classical Greece. It produced probably the most interesting practical political treatise of medieval Europe, the Tibyan: Memoirs of Abd Allah al-Ziri (1094); the auto-biography of a failed sovereign forced into exile. Christian Europe would not see such astute political awareness until The Prince by Machiavelli (d. 1527). Nevertheless, the Taifas were generally too weak and divided to defend themselves against raids and demands for tribute from the Christian states to the north. In 1085, raids turned into conquests, when Alfonso VI of Castile (d. 1109) took Toledo in 1085, a great symbolic prize as the ancient capital of the Visigothic Kingdom. Alfonso followed the Muslim example, and maintained the multi-cultural flavour of this city of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

El Cid, the Castilian nobleman and military adventurer in 11th-century Spain.

The loss of one of their greatest cities sent a shockwave through Muslim Spain, and provoked a response; Taifa rulers sent an appeal for help to the powerful Almoravid Sultanate (1147-1145) of Morocco. The Almoravids trace their origin to Moorish tribesmen of the north-west Africa, who had converted to Islam in the 8th-century, and then prospered on the lucrative trans-Saharan trade-route. Around 1035, their chieftain made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and discovered to his dismay that their faith had diverged considerably from orthodox Islam. So he returned home with a theologian called Abdallah ibn Yasin (d. 1059) to preach the true faith. Yasin instilled in the Almoravids with an exceptionally strict interpretation of Islam, transforming them into a formidably disciplined fighting force. In 1062, they founded the city of Marrakech as their capital, and, over the next twenty years, conquered all of north-west Africa as far east as Algiers, benefitting from the political vacuum caused when the Fatimid Dynasty moved east to Egypt in 969. The battle-hardened Almoravids crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and routed the Castilian army at the Battle of Sagrajas (October 1086); the battleground was later called az-Zallaqah ("slippery ground") because of the tremendous blood-shed that day, on both sides. Their losses meant the Almoravids were unable to recover Toledo, but the Christian advance was halted for several generations. Only on the east coast was the Muslim resurgence challenged by the buccaneering exploits of Rodrigo Diaz (d. 1099), known even in his own day as El Cid; from the Arabic al-sayyid ("lord"). Although hailed as one of the greatest Christian heroes of the reconquest, for most of his life El Cid fought as a mercenary with equal enthusiasm for rulers of either religion. In 1094, he conquered the great city of Valencia, and held it against the Almoravids for five years, though it lay deep in Muslim territory. El Cid remained undefeated in battle until his death in 1099. The historical significance of El Cid's achievements were in fact slight, for within three years his family was driven-out by the Muslims; Valencia would not become a Christian city again for 125 years. But his sheer effrontery was enough to inspire the great epic poem, El Poema de mio Cid (c. 1140); later Spanish tradition evolved ever more fanciful tales about the courageous brave folk-hero. The Almoravid Sultans were meanwhile stricter in their faith than the Umayyads, but largely continued the traditions of Muslim Spain. Their rule is most noteworthy for introducing Iberian art, architecture, and literature to the other half of their empire in north-west Africa; such as the magnificent Great Mosque of Algiers, built in 1097. Their Sultante began to collapse when they failed to control a religious revivalist movement based in the Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco, known as the Almohads (meaning "absolute unity"). With an even more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. they established a Moorish confederation irrespective of tribal structures, which made them a more coherent force than the Almoravids, who they were considered heretics, having been supposedly corrupted by the comforts of the city. The Almohad conquered the Almoravid capital of Marrakesh in 1147. In 1159, their rule extends over the entire north-west African coast even further east to Tripoli in western Libya; bringing all the Moors within a single empire for the first time. By 1172, they had taken the the other half of the Almoravid realm in Spain, establishing the Almohad Caliphate (1121–1269). The Almohads sought to strengthen their state through severe religious measures, but their unbending interpretation of Islam alienated many of the Muslim urban elites in Spain. Meanwhile, in the 11th and 12th century, religious fervour had entered the Christian camp too. The first Cluniac monastery west of Barcelona was founded at San Juan de la Peña in 1024. These reforming monks were not as impressed with Muslim grandeur as the Spanish had often been. The Popes also began calling the knights of Europe to join the fight against the infidel in the Iberian Peninsula, promising them the same indulgences as the Crusaders. The decisive phase of the Reconquista began with a defeat of the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), by a coalition of Christian forces.

Rise of the Muslim Seljuk Turks[]


In the 11th-century, the Muslim world was transformed by a people who have already made their mark on this narrative. the Turks of Central Asia. For centuries, the various nomadic peoples of Central Asia were a source of impetus in world history, producing such wide-ranging results as indirectly provoking the Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire, the menacing and sometimes revitalizing of China, and facilitating the Silk Road trade routes which bound Europe to distant China. Nonetheless, the history of these peoples is hard to make out, either broadly or in detail. The best starting-point is geography. Central Asia's northern wall is provided by the Siberian forest mass, and the southern by deserts and great mountain ranges. Its remoteness from the ocean produces an arid climate, and grassy steppe for the most part. The peoples who live here seem distinctive at the moment they enter history; specialists in the difficult art of living on the move, following pasture with their flocks and herds, and uncommonly adept at using the composite bow from horseback. They could carry out elaborate weaving, carving and decoration, but of course, did not build, for they lived in their tents. At the extreme end of this unbroken range of open grasslands lies the high plateau of Mongolia, original homeland of both Turks and later the Mongols. Unlike the sudden eruption of the Mongols in the 13th-century, the westward migration of various different Turkic groups was a gradual and largely uncharted process. The life of a nomad leaves few physical traces, and it's only when they acquired power in some region that they can be glimpsed in the historical record. In the 6th-century, some Turks were as far west as Eastern Europe, where they were called Avars (580-804), the troublesome neighbours of the Byzantine Empire; they are credited with introducing the stirrup to Europe, and with it a revolution in cavalry warfare. The Turkic Bulgars split from the Avars sometime after 600, and then merged with the settled Slavs to form the ancestors of modern Bulgarians. Other Turkic groups - the Khazars (650-969) and Pechenegs (860–1091) - settled in what is now the Ukraine and southern Russia, where they played important parts in the history of the Russia. Different Turkic groups are said to have fought as mercenaries for both sides at the Battle of Talas (751), between the Muslims and Tang Chinese.

Tughril Beg, founder of the Seljuk Turkish Empire, on the national currency of Turkmenistan.

By the 10th-century, the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) had ceased to exist in a political sense, fractured into numerous regional Muslim powers. Some of the most important were: the Fatimid Dynasty (909-1171) of Egypt, Palestine, and southern Syria; the Hamdanid Dynasty of Anatolia and northern Syria; the Buyid Dynasty (934–1062) of western Persia and Iraq; and finally the Samanid Dynasty (819–999) of eastern Persia. Listing these four powers far from exhausts the complexity of the unsettled Islamic world at the turn of the millenium. Moreover, of the four, only the Samanids adhered to the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam, which recognised the Abbasid Caliph as their religious figurehead. Meanwhile, Turkish mercenaries known as Mamelukes had long served in the Caliph’s armies; now in the 10th-century they played an increasingly important role in the armies of the Abbasid successor states. In a recurring pattern of barbarians within the borders of empire, they were well-placed to advance their own interests, and frequently took the opportunity. One such group, the Ghaznavids (977-1186), built an empire covering Afghanistan and then expanded deep into north-western India. However, they were eventually pushed aside by an even more consequential Turkic group, the Seljuk Turks. Seljuk was the chieftain of a group of Turkish tribes which had settled in the north-eastern borderlands of the Islamic world in the late-10th-century, where they gradually succumbed to its powerful religious influence. For his grandson, Tughril Beg (d. 1063), the obvious stepping-stone to greater power was the wealth of the Ghaznavids. Initially, Tughril Beg was repulsed by Mas'ud I of Ghazni (d. 1040), but retired and bided him time. In 1137, he sacked the great city of Ghazni, while the Ghaznavid army was away campaigning in India. Mas'ud hurried home to confront this threat, only to be decisively defeated at the Battle of Dandanaqan (May 1040), and forced to abandon most of his western territory to the Seljuqs. Tughril Beg now looked around westwards for further expansion opportunities. With the collapse of the Samanid Dynasty in 999, eastern Persia was in a state of anarchy, ruled by many petty princes waging war against on another. Tughril Beg, and his equally formidable brother Chaghri Beg (d. 1060), slowly and methodically conquered their way through eastern Persia, and then the Buyids of western Persia. By 1055, he was in a position to threaten Baghdad itself; but there was no need. Abbasid Caliph Al-Qa'im (1031-75) welcomed Tughril Beg into the city, as the restorers of Islamic unity. Now that there was a strong Sunni state to rival Shi'a Fatimid Egypt, he gave the Seljuks an ambitious task; to bring Egypt back into the orthodox fold. Thus ultimately proved beyond the powers of Tughril Beg, and his still somewhat unruly Turkic tribesmen. But for the next two generations the Seljuks retained control in Baghdad, as the centre of an Islamic empire restored to extensive boundaries.


In many ways, the Seljuks played an outstanding historic role: they crystallized a new Islamic world that this time included Turkish peoples; they began the settlement of Turks in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey); and they played a role in provoking the Crusading Age. Warfare between the Fatimids and Seljuqs naturally occurred in the borderlands around Syria and Palestine, causing serious disruption to local Christians and to Western pilgrimage routes; Jerusalem itself was lost to the Fatimids in 1073, and subsequently recovered in 1098. Tughril Beg's successor, Alp Arslan (1072), for the most part, pursued peaceful relations with the Byzantine Empire, but was unable to restrain the less disciplined Turkic tribes from raiding wealthy but weak Anatolia for easy plunder. This finally provoked a response from Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes (d. 1071). The two armies met at the Battle of Manzikert (1071), a resounding victory for the Seljuks and a turning point in the story of Byzantium and Turkey. By 1080, most of Anatolia was in Turkish hands. Under Alp Arslan's successor, Malikshāh I (1072-92), the Seljuk Empire continued began to falter. Malikshāh did not ascend to the throne peacefully, confronted with the serious revolt of his uncle and subsequent purging of his supporters. Moreover, the dissident Nizari Ismailis sect, known in the West as the Assassins, started to become a force during his reign, assassinating several leading figures in the Seljuk administration. When Malikshāh was himself assassinated in 1092, the Seljuk Empire fell into chaos, as rival successors and regional governors carved up the state, and waged war against one another. To Byzantine Emperor Alexios I (d. 1118), this seemed the perfect opportunity to regain the lost imperial territory in Anatolia. Lacking the troops to go on the offensive, he wrote a fateful letter to Pope Urban II (d. 1099) seeking Western support. The help he sought was simply some mercenary forces; what he got was the First Crusaders.