Medieval Dynastic Fail: The Normans

A while back, I jumped off an article about one of the world’s remaining functional monarchies, that of Morocco, to an argument that survival was the key to success for a monarch. I used the Capetians as an example.

Today I’m going to unsay a little of that, and use as an example a dynasty contemporary to the Capetians, who, though they made about as big a mark on history as can be imagined, they survived less than 100 years: The Normans.

William the Conqueror is one of history’s more interesting characters: the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter, William overcame his bastardy (a serious mark against him in those days) to not only succeed to his father’s dukedom, but maintain it’s independence against all the other lords of France. Whereupon he took an almost pitiable claim to the English throne and, in a turn of events that would be laughable in fiction, conquered England almost at one blow. And unlike other fearsome warrior kings, he did not maintain a bevy of courtesans, but remained almost touchingly devoted to his wife. Having worn the title “Bastard” for much of his life, he seems to have made a conscious decision not to bring any into the world. He died a magnificent success, in his saddle (according to one source, by his saddle) as he had lived.

Greater than the romantic color of this life is the significance of it. The Norman Conquest of England changed forever the culture of the conquered land. The English language, hitherto but one of many Germanic tongues of the North Sea, took on a French/Latin tinge that gave it the size and flexibility it enjoys today as the world’s first diplomatic language. England ceased to be a peripheral power and became one of the chief realms of Medieval Europe. Politically, the personal union of Normandy and other French territories to the English throne led to 500 years of conflict with French kings, culminating in the bloodshed of the Hundred Years War. Few men of the Middle Ages made as great a mark on the times as did this illegitimate orphan, who lost his father at the age of seven.

Yet his dynasty was gone almost within a century of his birth. Why?

Continue reading → Medieval Dynastic Fail: The Normans