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The Norman Knights & Their Adventures

By Norman Descendants August 15, 2017 0 comments

By the arrival of the 11th century, the Norman adventurers began going off on impressive and then legendary expeditions. Their Viking heritage, their wanderlust, and their development into mounted knights allowed them to ride great distance, and fight very well on foot and horseback. In English, the word knight comes from the Anglo-Saxon cniht which means retainer or servant. It was not until the 12th century that knighthood became associated with noble birth.

The Duchy of Normandy in the beginning of the 11th century was rich and administered very well, becoming truly feudal in that the duchy was divided into fiefs, each fief owing knights to service the duke. The sons of Norman knights, being knights or squires themselves and so powerful warriors, had to seek fortune abroad as adventurers, just like their Norse ancestors did. Thus, Normans began going to Italy in 1016, perhaps as mercenaries, and repelled the Saracen attacks without much trouble and impressed the Italians; more Norman warriors arrived the next year. A Norman knight, named Ranulf, journeyed to Italy, establishing a foothold there in 1030 by founding the settlement at Aversa. From then on, the Norman rulers would employ their own countrymen. Robert Guiscard was declared Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1059, and at that, the Normans were closer to forging their own kingdom in southern Italy. The Normans captured Palermo from the Saracens in 1071, and at that, Sicily was soon to be theirs. Robert's brother, Roger, would later become count whilst continuing Norman conquests, liberating Malta in 1091, much to the joy and celebration of the Maltese. That same year, the Normans consolidated their power throughout Sicily and southern Italy; Normans, Sicilians, Italians, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side in relative harmony. But the Normans would not stop in Sicily; they would launch attacks against the Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, and Bulgars. Despite so much warfare and adventure, the Normans also contributed to architecture, law, art, and music, influencing Western Europe and setting themselves as an example of courage and culture.

Meanwhile, with Roger and Robert working in Italy and Sicily, William and his knights and mercenaries sailed overseas to conquer England, stemming from a complex issue involving the death of Edward the Confessor and then Harold's claims to the throne in 1066. When William embarked for England, about half of his army consisted of mercenaries, lesser or landless knights, and commoners eager for opportunity and reward. That same year, 1066, the Normans secured a beachhead and were met by the Anglo-Saxon army, who secured a foothold atop a hill. Thus, the legendary Battle of Hastings occurred, resulting in a bloody battle and death of the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, who just a few weeks prior had won an impressive victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge against his rival Harald Hardrada, who was slain in battle. William's utilization of infantry, archers, and cavalry overcame the old-fashioned shield wall-based Norse tactics, the increased flexibility and newer style of warfare allowing his knights to ride forth to the Anglo-Saxon shield wall, skirmish, retreat, pursued by the Anglo-Saxons, and then reform and counter-charge their pursuers, turning the tide of battle. The cavalry charge broke the English and Saxon lines, Harold was killed by an arrow shot through his eye, two of Harold's brothers were killed, and most Englishmen and Saxons fled, but the huscarls, following their honour and loyalty as explored earlier, fought to the last man, dying with their king.

Once England was under William's control, he quickly reformed the taxation system, improving his finances, and then made vassals. The landed knights under William became the barones. Landed freemen who had not achieved knighthood were called vavasseurs. Those possessing less than a knight's fee but who were capable soldiers seem to be known as sergeants, and were possibly middle-class, and potentially bore equipment like knights and even horses, but did not have the rank or status of a knight. William's excellent management of taxes, military, and fiefs, and construction of castles would secure Norman rule in England. The Normans invaded Scotland in 1072 (which would form a legacy of conflict to involve Robert the Bruce and William Wallace in later centuries), and then the Normans invaded Wales in 1081, but made no extensive results, and were also attacked and demoralized by Norwegians under command of Magnus Barefoot off the coast of Anglesey, the Norwegians killing the Norman earl, suggesting that the Normans did not quite keep the heritage of seafaring as their Norse ancestors had. The marshes of Wales did not suit the Norman knights well, and so limited their usefulness in such terrain. As such, the Normans were not successful against the Welsh, who were one of the few nations to have withstood the prowess of the Normans. Meanwhile, the Norwegians would raid parts of Scotland and Ireland, enslaving many Celtic peoples and forming their own Norse cities, adding more heat to the fire of the British Isles, but that is another subject. In the meantime, by 1086, the Domesday Book was completed by order of William, a manuscript that surveyed much of England, a medieval attempt that improved administration and management.

After the Normans established their rule in England and Sicily, forming independent kingdoms, the First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095, to eventually result in the Christians retaking the Holy Lands from Muslim conquerors. The Crusaders marched towards the Holy Lands on foot, raiding and pillaging as they went, especially targeting Jews despite being protected by the burghers and papacy at times. Figures such as Bohemond, Tancred, Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond, Stephen II, and many of their family members, would lead the Crusaders on a long road through hell, and despite the terrifying odds stacked against them, the Crusaders would be victorious. The Crusaders took Antioch from the Saracens in 1098, and once Jerusalem fell for the first and last time in 1099 by the Crusaders, Bohemond, yet another Norman adventurer, established yet another Norman state. Indeed, the Normans were quite the adventurous fellows, whose knights were unmatched in their ferocity, martial prowess, honour, loyalty, and piety. Franks, Italians, Germans, and Flemings also participated in the First Crusade. The English and Norwegians would also participate in future crusades directed to the Holy Lands. The Normans would continue their adventures in the Holy Lands and the Mediterranean coasts well into the next century, proving that their bloodline of knightly virtue was to last.

By the arrival of the 12th century, the Normans established their own firm rules in Albion, Sicily, and southern Italy, the various Crusader states were well established, and the Normans would launch yet another invasion, this time against Ireland, in 1169, giving birth to the slogan “more Irish than the Irish themselves” which alludes to the Normans' openness of assimilating into Irish culture. Undoubtedly, the British Isles was quite a magical place, the source of many of the medieval world's most famous heroes, kings, legends, battles, and history.

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