Norman times

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Norman times


Vikings come ashore from their longships

By Mike Bisson, 2010

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Norman ships setting sail for England

Northmen settle

The area of France now known as Normandy was settled in the ninth century by Scandinavian invaders known as Northmen or Normans. In 911 the King of France, Charles the Simple, gave one of their leaders, Hrolf Haraldsson, or Rollo, the title Duke of Normandy. He allowed this band of Vikings to settle and farm their land to stop others invading and moving inland to attack Paris.

The Channel Islands were part of Brittany at the time, but when the second duke, Rollo’s son William Longsword, captured the Cotentin peninsula in 933, the Channel Islands became part of Normandy.

Norman expansion

Norman expansion was actively encouraged by the French kings as long as it was directed against Brittany, because this kept the Breton kings under control and weakened the power of the Normans while allowing them an outlet for adventure. In 933 William Longsword annexed the Cotentin and the islands, described as "the land of the Bretons by the seacoast", from the Bretons who were otherwise engaged with other Viking bands. This transfer of power was recognised by the French king but effective control over the independent Norse settlers was not asserted until the early eleventh century during the reign of Duke Richard II.

Indeed, the Bishop of Coutances, driven from his cathedral city by the pagan Norse in the mid-tenth century was unable to return until 1025, although he had made attempts as early as 990AD. This obviously had its repercussions for Jersey for the Island had been in the see of Coutances since the early eighth century. Perhaps this explains why there was an outburst of church building in the Island following 1025.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these land grants and Norman expansion was the effect that the Frankish society had on the Norse leadership. Rollo recognised the strength of Frankish style government: whereas Viking society was a loosely democratic system where loyalty was freely given or witheld based on esteem, the Frankish system was one in which loyalty was imposed and assured by threat. All land and laws belonged to the ruler to dispense with as he chose, land was given in return for loyalty - shirk the obligation and lose the land. Adopting this style of government Rollo made landgrants and this practise was continued and developed by his successors into the system we refer to today as Norman feudalism.

The new model for society was for a mass of peasants, many unfree, to produce an agricultural surplus necessary to support a military class of knights, who in turn existed to support and to serve a lesser or greater magnate who in turn were vassals of the ruler. Therefore, nobility in Norman society became linked with territory.

The islands were governed by a Seneschal of Normandy, who appointed a deputy, known as the Vicomte of the Islands, to act for him. The Duke’s laws were enforced by visiting judges from mainland Normandy, the practice continuing after 1066. To this day much of Jersey law is based on ancient Norman law and Advocates are required to study in Caen before they can qualify.

Dukes of Normandy may have visited Jersey, but no records survive. In 1029 the sixth duke, Robert, was planning an invasion of England to help his cousin, Edward the Confessor, to oust King Cnut and become King himself. His fleet of vessels took shelter off Jersey in a storm early in 1030 and the attack on England was eventually abandoned, Robert and his men returning home to Normandy.

William the Conqueror from an 18th century engraving

Island rule

Before Duke William II’s conquest of England (and for a century afterwards) the Channel Islands were administered as a whole by a Seneschal of Normandy through his appointed deputy, the Vicomte of the Islands, who lived there. The conquest of England by Duke William II made no difference to the status of the Islands as they were part of the Duchy of Normandy and the position of duke and king was not always held by the same person. William left Normandy to Robert, who became Duke Robert II, and England to his second son William Rufus, who became King William II.

His third son Henry succeeded both his brothers and, just like his father, governed the two lands separately.

Geoffrey of Anjou

When Henry died in 1135 the succession of both countries was disputed between his nephew, Stephen, and his daughter, Mathilda. By 1144 Mathilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, had successfully captured the Duchy and had himself declared Duke, while Stephen held on to England. On Geoffrey’s death in 1150, his son, Henry Plantagenet, became Duke and four years later by the terms of the Treaty of Wallingford became King of England on the death of his uncle Stephen. Only then did the English monarch and the Norman dukes coincide.

But even then only for the reign of Henry II and his son Richard I. It was a dispute between Henry’s youngest son, John, and his young grandson, Arthur, that enabled the French king to exploit the divisions within the duchy to such an extent that he was able to take it over.

The increase in ducal holdings within the Islands as a result of Geoffrey’s actions resulted in Jersey and Guernsey each having their own Vicomte.

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