1066: Interpreting the Norman Conquest in 2016

1066 and landscape change post-Conquest

This October, to mark 950 years since the Norman Conquest, the Royal Armouries is hosting a public lecture and a two day conference at the Tower of London to celebrate the anniversary – 1066: Interpreting the Norman Conquest in 2016 (14-16 October)   

The conference aims to present the huge changes that have taken place in the interpretation of the Norman Conquest, bringing together distinguished scholars; experts in many fields. The conference will explore the history of the year 1066 itself and the general significance of the Conquest for English, British and French history. 

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On Day 2 of the conference, the Royal Armouries will be welcoming speaker Professor Robert Liddiard of the University of East Anglia, for 1066 and landscape change post-Conquest.

This special blog post, written by Professor Robert Liddiard, discusses his recent visit to Castle Hedingham in Essex, which got him thinking about the impact of the Norman Conquest on the landscape, and his upcoming paper at the conference…

It is a pleasure to be invited to speak at the Norman Conquest at the White Tower, but such invitations always draw my attention to the inadequacies of my image bank. As a late convert to digital technology most of the images I use comprise scanned old-fashioned slides, which increasingly show their age when used with modern projection equipment.

As a consequence I need no excuse to go to pleasant places on the pretext of getting superior pictures and as fieldwork took me to south Suffolk last week, I took the opportunity to nip over the border into Essex and visit Castle Hedingham. Not only was I able to replace the old slides with digital images, but the experience inevitably got me thinking about the impact of the Norman Conquest on the landscape and my paper at the conference.

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Castle Hedingham, Essex © Robert Liddiard

Castle Hedingham is best known for its well-preserved keep, probably raised by Aubrey De Vere III, 1st Earl of Oxford about 1141, and possibly the building in which his investiture as Earl took place. Much has been written about it as a keep, but my interest lies more in the castle’s landscape context: by the thirteenth century, and probably much earlier, two deer parks (the great and little park) were attached to the castle and the adjacent village was originally connected to the castle by enclosing banks and ditches; the precise date of which are frustratingly unknown.

When put into its contemporary setting, the whole site was truly vast. In recent years landscape historians have been able to show that, as settlements, castles tend to reflect the characteristics of their wider regional landscapes, and in this respect the configuration of the various elements that made up medieval Hedingham is typically ‘Essex’ – the ‘nucleated’ settlement of the village lying in the river valley, with the castle parks situated between the more dispersed hamlets and farmsteads on the valley sides and tops.

But Hedingham is also important because, while it is a remarkable survival of a ‘Norman’ building, it has little to do with the events of 1066 per se; rather, it belongs to a different generation – one that did not experience the Conquest at first hand. At the time of the keep’s construction, England was sliding into civil war and its ruling French-speaking aristocrats were thinking of using their castles to fight each other; rather than for keeping down a hostile English population opposed to Norman rule.

Thinking about monuments in terms of generational change is a reminder that historians of landscape tend to emphasise longer term trends in their analyses and so often play down the significance of short-term events, especially political ones. Of course, it would be immensely foolish to do so when it comes to 1066, especially at a conference taking place within the walls of the Conqueror’s own trophy monument to conquest, but places like Hedingham draw attention to the fact that not all of what we call ‘Norman’ in the countryside was an immediate consequence of the battle of Hastings.

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Castle Hedingham, Essex  ©  Robert Liddiard

The period 1000-1200 was one of enormous changes to the landscape, not all of which were related to the activities of the Normans. The castles, churches, parks and warrens of eleventh- and twelfth-century England frequently owed their existence to more subtle and drawn out trends in the development of the English countryside. How we tease out what was genuinely new in the landscape after 1066 and how they related to ongoing processes is the subject of my paper at the conference.

After all, how, if at all, would we recognise the ‘Norman’ in a place like Hedingham if it didn’t have a castle…?

Professor Robert Liddiard

Biography

Robert Liddiard lectures in landscape history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. His chief research interest is the landscape context of castles, but also in the wider impact of the Norman Conquest on the countryside. His publications include Anglo-Norman Castles (2003) Castles in Context (2005) and The Medieval Park (2007).