Norman Rule in England Study Note


As part of the series on Crime and Punishment in the UK 1250 - 1500, this study note looks at Norman Rule in England from the point of view of law and order. It details the new system that now applied, rebellions and kings and Murdrum.
Andrew Burke
Note by Andrew Burke, updated more than 1 year ago
Andrew Burke
Created by Andrew Burke almost 6 years ago

Resource summary

Page 1

A New System

After the Normans conquered England in 1066, William the Conqueror took the throne. With this change, the power of the king and Church increased relative to other parts of society. During the Norman period, the king's control over law increased. Local communities lost decision-making power and punishment and law enforcement became more centralised.  Under William's reign, there was a rise in the number of harsh punishments, including public execution. This boosted the power and authority of the king across the new conquered territory.

Page 2

Norman Kings

Rebellions and Norman response:  William I took control of England between 1066-1087, he wanted to establish his royal authority and to centralise crime and punishment. Anglo-Saxon resistance was strong, particularly in York and East Anglia. William was known for utilising brutal means to make people submit to his power and authority. He demonstrated no limits to his power when dealing with rebellions:  Extreme punishments occurred for rebels, while large groups were punished even though they were not directly involved (demonstrate his power) Farmlands were destroyed and animals slaughtered Estimates suggest 100,000 people died from starvation as a result of William's punishments Norman Castles:  William and his subjects began a process of castle building all around the kingdom. Peasant workers were made to construct these castles in which Norman lords would live. Lords would then control the local population from the castle under Norman law. Castles acted as a watch point and intimidated people also. They were a symbol of royal authority and its strength regarding law and order in England.  The feudal system:  Norman society was organised around the feudal system (as seen below):  King: owns all the land and makes laws. Gives land to some nobles.  Nobles: king gave them land which meant they were rich and powerful. Some had castles to keep a watch out of their area and enforce law. They supply the king with knights and horses. Offer land to knights too.  Knight: live on small areas of land and work for the nobles and king. Serfs: own no land and work for the nobles on very low pay. No say in society. In this system, everyone owed money or service to the class above them. The Normans replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobles with people of Norman descent. 

Page 3

New Laws

Murdrum (A new Law):  Law was the means for the Normans to establish control over the Anglo-Saxon population. If an Anglo-Saxon murdered a Norman and the murderer was not found and executed there was a special penalty called the murdrum fine. This was a large fine paid by the hundred where the body was discovered. The purpose of this law was to prevent an increase in revenge murders that occurred after Norman invasion.  This fine benefited the Normans, but continued to show the shared behaviour of everyone in a tithing in the Anglo-Saxon community. 

William I's Forest Laws:  Large sections of the English countryside were declared 'royal forests', these are areas William would use as hunting grounds. This impacted people in a dramatic way, for example, the 'Nova Foresta' (New Forest). After William took control of this forest, around forty village communities were evicted from the area. Land that had originally belonged to peasants (their animals could graze there, they collected firewood, they could catch rabbits) was under strict control of the king. Only those who could afford hunting rights were allowed use the forest. For peasants, it became illegal to carry any hunting gear and even take a fallen branch. Hunting wild animals for food became a crime known as poaching (illegally hunting on land that does not belong to you).  The Forest Laws took away people's natural resources, which were needed for survival  People saw the laws as unjust and unfair and therefore, broke them The Forest Laws created 'social crimes' (actions which are illegal but most people in society do not disapprove of them) William hired men to work as foresters in order to enforce the Forest Laws and carry out due punishment against criminals. Punishments ranged from hanging to castration and blinding. These punishments were harsh and were aimed at deterring people from breaking Forest Laws.    Forest Outlaws:  Beginning in the Anglo-Saxon era, any man over the age of 14, who tried to avoid trial and punishment by running away from his local community was labelled an outlaw. Women who ran away were referred to as 'waived'. Both these men and women lost the protection of the law. These people could be killed without any legal repercussion for the person responsible.  Outlaws have strong connections with the forest. This is evident in the Robin Hood story that appeared in literature from the 14th century. Robin Hood and his gang are described as brave heroes who challenge the injustices in society. However, in reality, outlaw gangs were very much the opposite in nature. 

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