Background History of the Normans

Here we take a look at each of the Norman monarchs in more detail, this was a turbulent time in British history and full of interesting events!

William I ‘The Conqueror’ 1066-1087A.D.

Following the death of childless Edward the Confessor in 1066, the English throne was seized by the powerful Earl Harold Godwinson; a man who had endured a period of disfavour and exile in the 1050’s. He claimed, although uncorroborated, that Edward had named him his successor on his deathbed. William, Duke of Normandy, sometimes known as ‘the Bastard’ (a distant relative of Edward) also asserted his legitimacy – claiming that following Harold’s exile, Edward had named him as successor to the Crown. When William landed a large force at Pevensey, Harold led a forced march south from Stamford Bridge to meet defeat near Hastings. This is perhaps the best-known event in English history, one vividly commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry.

William moved quickly to exert control over England, though after 1072 he would spend the majority of his time in France. Measures he introduced include the imposition of Forest Law, setting aside large tracts of land (such as the New Forest) for hunting by the aristocracy, as well as the construction of numerous castles to maintain order. Despite this, the years following his conquest saw a number of rebellions – all brutally repressed. The infamous ‘Harrying of the North’ through 1069-70 saw a scorched earth policy applied to the northern shires, which killed thousands and destroyed local infrastructure. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote thus;

“In his anger, he commanded that all crops, herd, and food of any kind be brought together and burnt to ashes so that the whole region north of the Humber be deprived of any sustenance.”

The social impact of these reprisals was huge, by the time of the Domesday survey in 1085-6 the vast majority of land not directly owned by William was controlled by Norman tenants.

Spending his last years defending England from Scottish and Danish incursions, accounts vary regarding his death in 1087 during a military campaign in France. One relates that during the siege of Mantes, he was mortally wounded when his horse abruptly reared up – slamming the saddle pommel into his now prodigious gut and rupturing his intestines. William would die in agony a week later, though even his funeral was beset by misfortune and high drama. The service at Caen was first interrupted by a wronged citizen, claiming that the church in which it was taking place had been built on his stolen land. A second, final insult occurred when the body was interred; the tomb was too small and attendants were forced to squeeze it into the space. Due to improper embalming, it is reported to have exploded at this juncture. Somewhere perhaps, the ghost of Harold Godwinson was having the last laugh.

William’s coins are blatant promotions of his power and legitimacy. For example, the ‘canopy’ type penny (BMC type III) celebrates William’s second coronation by the papal legate in 1070, while the ‘bonnet’ and ‘two stars’ type pennies (BMC types II and V) are thought to reference the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1066 – a random celestial event duly propagandised as signalling divine approval of his rule. The design of the ‘two sceptres’ penny (BMC type IV) perhaps alludes to William’s dual rule as King of England and Duke of Normandy. Lastly, given the violence he subjected others to in life and the gruesome circumstances of his death it is perhaps ironic that his last coinage (BMC type VIII, struck c. 1086-1088) is known as the ‘PAXS’ (peace) type.

William II ‘Rufus’ 1087-1100A.D.

William the Conqueror was father to at least nine children; four sons (Robert, Richard, William, Henry) as well as five or six daughters (Adeliza, Constance, Cecilia, Agatha, Adela and Matilda). On his death in 1087, Robert was left control of Normandy, William the throne of England and Henry the sum of £5000 for the purposes of purchasing his own estates. Richard would die as the result of a hunting accident in c. 1074, and thus inherited nothing from his father.

Known colloquially by the nickname ‘Rufus’ due to his ruddy complexion, William would prove an able ruler. Despite making an initial peace pact with his brother Robert (who at the time of his father’s death was in open rebellion against him), William would face an early challenge to his rule in the English rebellion of 1088. This rising was led by none other William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, acting on in support of Robert himself. Dividing his enemies by promising those nobles that sided with him as much land and coin as they desired, William simultaneously alleviated the concerns of the English populace by cleverly promising sweeping legal reform. Following a lightning campaign against the rebel forces and the capture of Odo at Pevensey Castle, the domestic situation was soon well under control.

William spent much of his reign defending his holdings, both domestic and overseas against other enemies. In 1091 he took the fight across the Channel, crushing Robert’s standing army and forcing him to cede a portion of his lands to William. Robert would never again attack him, choosing instead to mortgage the Duchy of Normandy for 10,000 marks to fund his subsequent participation in the Crusades. Invasions of England by King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1091/1093 respectively resulted in the latter’s death, while Cumberland and Westmoreland were subsequently annexed to Norman control. In 1097, William campaigned in Wales – which resulted in no territorial gains but marked further reinforcement of the so-called ‘Marcher Lords’ through a vigorous programme of fortification.

Such demonstrable martial prowess appears to be reflected in the designs of the coins he struck; through the course of his twelve-year reign William struck five different types of penny, of which three depict him holding a sword. William II’s coins are markedly more scarce than those struck by his father and very rare when compared with his successor Henry I – making them especially desirable to collectors.

Ironically, the most famous part of William’s rule over England concerns his death. Hunting in the New Forest on the 2nd of August 1100, he was fatally shot with an arrow by nobleman Walter Tirel – who promptly fled the scene and went into a self-imposed exile in France. Such an event might be seen as an accident but for the fact that William’s brother Henry galloped off to take control of the royal treasury at Winchester, being crowned King three days later. Some historians suggest that William’s death was a plot contrived by important members of the church, angry at his appropriation of ecclesiastical incomes and meddling with episcopal appointments.

Henry I 1100-1135A.D.

The youngest son of William the Conqueror, Henry I was the longest-reigning English monarch since Æthelred II – ruling for thirty-five years. Hot-tempered and with a reputedly cruel streak, he was nevertheless a very effective monarch. For one thing, he was responsible for the creation of several government bodies that still exist today; such as the Royal Exchequer and an early system of travelling justices. Crowned in Winchester after an opportunistic coronation, Henry would as with his predecessor William II face an early challenge from Duke Robert of Normandy – his eldest brother. Robert invaded England in 1101, but quickly accepted terms and retreated. A retaliatory campaign by Henry culminated with the total destruction of Robert’s forces at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106 – Robert spending the rest of his life in prison. Like his father, Henry had become the master of both England and Normandy simultaneously.

Although Henry sired a number of illegitimate children, his first marriage to Matilda of Scotland (who died in 1118) resulted in the birth of two children: a son, William ‘Adelin’; and a daughter, also called Matilda. On the night of November 25th  in 1120, a monumental personal and political tragedy struck when William and many other members of the Anglo-Norman nobility drowned in the so-called ‘White Ship’ disaster. This event sent Henry into a depressive spiral, and although he would remarry the next year no further legitimate male heirs were forthcoming. As such, towards the end of his life Henry was forced to break with tradition and appointed his daughter Matilda to succeed him. This decision led to a succession crisis when he died in 1135, as most of the Anglo-Norman nobility chose Count Stephen of Blois (his nephew) to take the throne instead. This usurpation of Matilda’s claim resulted in the ‘Anarchy’ – a twenty year period of civil war.

Henry’s coinage is the most diverse of any Norman monarch, with 15 different types issued over 35 years. Although many have been discovered as single finds, there are also a number of important hoards from this period – two of which (Pimprez and Beauvais) have intriguing continental findspots. While Henry’s early issues are stylistically quite crude, after 1105 die-engravers began to employ more ornate designs on thinner, broader flans. These cosmetic changes coincided with the actions of corrupt moneyers, who began to buy sub-standard silver and thus debased the coinage – making its users increasingly suspicious. To combat this, Henry was forced to decree that all new coins issued after 1112 be ‘snicked’ to clearly demonstrate their silver content. However, this did little to curb the now rampant embezzlement.

Exasperated by the situation, in 1125 Henry enacted a virtually unparalleled event in English numismatic history: the ‘Assize of the moneyers’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year recounts this event in detail:

‘King Henry … commanded that all the mint-men of England…come to Winchester at Christmas; and when they came thither his men took them one by one, and cut off their right hands with the member below (i.e castrated)… because they had ruined this land with the great quantity of bad metal which they all bought.’

Documentary evidence from the Pipe Rolls for the late 1120’s shows that some moneyers (who had perhaps erred to a lesser degree) were instead sentenced to pay large fines and removed from office, escaping summary castration. Interestingly, this event is visible numismatically – the number of mints and moneyers working in Henry’s type XIV (issued c. 1123-1124) reduce enormously in type XV (c. 1125-1135).

Henry I Silver Penny 1100-1135AD Annulets type London-16212

Stephen and ‘The Anarchy’ 1135-1154A.D.

The reign of Stephen and the civil strife that gripped the country from 1135-53 is perhaps best described by paraphrasing the Anglo-Saxon chronicle’s entry for the year 1137:

I know not how to tell of all the atrocities nor all the cruelties wrought upon the unhappy people of this country. They lasted throughout the nineteen long winters that Stephen was King. Never did a country endure greater misery. Wherever the earth was tilled the earth bore no corn, and men said that Christ and His saints slept.’

Bleak reading, indeed.

With Stephen on one side and the so-called ‘Angevin party’ of Henry I’s daughter Matilda and her son Henry (the future Henry II) on the other, both sides were fighting for the right to succeed to the English Crown. Abounding with stories of internecine warfare, foreign invasion, crime and societal breakdown, it is perhaps no surprise that this period has come to be known colloquially as ‘The Anarchy’. Amongst the death and famine which ravaged the land, mint towns, moneyers and the coins they produced were at the centre of this struggle as both sides vied for superiority; troops paid and equipped, loyalties bought, day-to-day commerce maintained and taxes levied.

Coins struck in the name of Stephen are the most commonly encountered from this period, though many of these are poorly struck and of bad quality. Comparably with the English Civil War of the 1640s, many hoards were deposited in these troubled times: those discovered at Watford, Prestwich, Wicklewood, Awbridge and Portsdown are just a few of the best known. Pieces are also encountered struck in the name of Matilda and her son Henry, who maintained her power base in the south-west of England thanks in part to the military prowess of her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Intriguingly, we also see during this period the existence of coins struck from deliberately defaced dies – which some numismatists have interpreted as the product of moneyers scared to be seen actively declaring for either side. Perhaps indicating how desperate the situation had become and the extent of power ebbing away from the King himself, coins even began to be struck by powerful magnates in the Southwest and North of England. Prominent nobles like Robert, Earl of Gloucester (see above), Robert de Stuteville and Eustace Fitzjohn all came to the fore in this respect – pieces issued by these individuals often commanding extremely high premiums.

Given the upheaval and conflict this is a particularly rich period for numismatic history, and certainly ripe for new discoveries. Unpublished pieces come to academic attention on virtually a monthly basis – primarily thanks to the efforts of metal detectorists. While coins from ‘The Anarchy’ are perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing they are certainly laden with the weight of history, silent witnesses to the chronic adversity endured by the people who used them in daily life.