How important was military might in the success of the Norman conquests?



In discussing the importance of the differing factors in the success of the Norman conquests of the eleventh-century, one must understand that even when there are similar factors in each conquest, their influences differ highly from region to region.  Military might is one such factor, whose influence varies greatly when comparing the Norman conquests of England, southern Italy and Sicily, and in the Holy Land.  The importance of military might is a central theme in the initial establishment of the duchy of Normandy itself; Chibnall states that the Vikings who established the duchy were militarily ‘formidable enough to persuade Charles the Simple that they might be turned into valuable allies’.  The influence of military might is central to the establishment of Norman power in each of their acquisitions, but the extent to which their military might was important varies in the three conquests discussed below.  Other factors also play a significant role, in particular internal strife in the regions conquered, as well as the weaknesses of the eleventh-century Byzantine Empire. 

The military capacity of the Normans was not an exception within contemporary militarism, but rather their military success ‘is a remarkable tribute to their adaptability.’  The type of warfare that the Normans used was usual for the time, consisting of a large dependence on cavalry warfare and large-scale use of mercenaries.  It is the former for which the Normans are generally known, yet it was the latter which provided foothold into southern Italy for the Normans.  Davis emphasises the Norman ability to exploit fully the feudal system as another important factor of their military prowess, capable of raising relatively large forces from their fiefs whilst retaining a tight control over them.  He also points out the influence of the Norman use of castles, which were used ‘in order to ensure the continued subjection of the peoples they had conquered.’

Beginning this discussion with the example of England, it is obvious to see the importance that Norman militarism had on the success of the conquest.  Reynolds has argued that ‘One reason why 1066 was conclusive was that the English had the habit of obedience to a lawfully crowned king’, but this is to misunderstand the situation in the kingdom as it was in 1066.  King Harold was a Saxon noble, native to the country over which he ruled, and subsequently viewed legitimate by those he ruled.  William on the other hand was a foreign usurper in the eyes of the English.  William of Malmesbury states that on the Conqueror’s appearance in London, ‘all the citizens came out to meet him with gratulations’, but one cannot take this statement at face value, for Malmesbury’s agenda is to praise William in his work.  The author himself is of mixed Anglo-Norman parentage, and is writing well after the event.  The work does not provide us with a true view of the English reaction to the Conquest.  William could take the throne only through use of force, and the military might of the Norman duchy allowed him to do this. 

Furthermore, the victory at Hastings also decapitated the English leadership.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that at Hastings ‘There was slain King Harold, and Leofwin his brother, and Earl Girth his brother, with many good men’, which left only Edgar Etheling and a handful of earls under whom resistance could build. The destruction of the cream of the Anglo-Saxon leadership at Hastings provided the Normans with a far simpler task in consolidating the conquest, for it denied the English a strong figurehead in which united resistance could continue. Defeat at Hastings for William would have seriously hampered his attempt at the throne, and prevented the Norman Conquest for the immediate future.

The forces under William in England provided the Normans with ‘a geographically and military composite army’, which contained ‘perhaps 7,000 men, half on horseback, half archers and infantry.’  Even after the Battle of Hastings, the success of the conquest relied upon this military force, and the continued success of the conquest depended on the ‘enormous devastation and ruthless massacres’ that ‘mastered Anglo-Saxon rebellions’ in the four years following Hastings.  The Norman forces available allowed William to put down rebellions ‘by methodical devastation’and this was dependent on the military power available to the conquerors. 

The command of these forces also allowed William to consolidate his rule over the country through controlling vital strategic areas.  ‘In order to hold the country, William…resorted to the construction of motte and bailey castles…which entailed protection of [the] Channel ports, crossing-points of rivers and a remarkable concentration around London and Coventry, that is around the two great nodal centres of communications in medieval England.’ Using fortification of strategically important areas allowed the conquerors to maintain control of vast areas with only a handful of men, whilst also allowing the remaining Norman military forces to move freely to quickly put down rebellions. In England, ‘The key to securing the Norman conquest was the possession of effective means of holding each part of England as it came under their control.  [Therefore, in the subsequent years after 1066] The army of conquest was kept substantially in being’ to allow this dual policy of local control and the ability to quickly put down revolts. 

In contrast to the importance of their military might in the conquest of England, the Norman conquest in southern Italy relied heavily upon the existence of a fractured state of political control, combined with the declining central authority of the Byzantine Empire.  The importance of the Byzantine inability to defend their borders from external threats during the mid-eleventh-century proved to be vital in the piecemeal obtaining of political power by the Normans in southern Italy, and played a major role in the success of the conquest.  Even so, the importance of Norman military power is again evident here.  The fact that the emergence of the Normans as a political force in Italy resulted from their military prowess and subsequent use as mercenaries by the Byzantine and Lombard powers in Italy provides historians with an invaluable look at the power of the Norman military style during this period.  ‘By playing their masters off against each other, some of the Norman mercenaries began to acquire land of their own and to emerge, first as minor, then as major, lords in their own right.’

The Normans were not a singular united force in southern Italy at the beginning of the conquest, but rather a series of mercenary bands placed into a political situation where ‘the lack of an effective central authority invited aggression’.  The emergence of land grants for service as mercenaries provided the Normans with land, initially at Aversa , and allowed a foothold from which their military might could begin to flourish into the fractious political environment of contemporary Italy. By emerging as landowners and powerful magnates within Italy, the Normans were able to consolidate their position and then extend their control over weaker neighbouring areas.  Their military strength and diplomatic prowess is demonstrated further by the grant of the title of ‘Count of Apulia’ to Drogo by Henry III in 1046, and the victory in 1053 at ‘Civitate gave the Normans military supremacy over the lower Italian peninsula’, and a free arm to further extend their control over the remaining Byzantine footholds.

The victory at Civitate demonstrated the military power of the Normans in Italy, yet Stanton is over-zealous in his statement that ‘The Italo-Normans had won so devastating a victory [at Civitate] that the ultimate conquest of southern Italy was virtually inevitable’. The Byzantines were still in possession of much of southern Italy, and the victory at Civitate had merely prevented further intervention by the Pope and Western Emperor in southern Italy, as well as papal recognition of the current and future Norman possessions by conquest in the peninsula.  It is important to restate that the recognition from the Pope of their control over the conquered territories was granted after a devastating military victory of papal forces at Civitate, therefore meaning that the military might of the Normans played a central role in establishing and consolidating their rule over conquered territories. 

In terms of the conquest of the remaining Byzantine territories in southern Italy, the importance of Norman military might takes a back role to the innate inability of the Byzantine Empire to maintain effectively its borders.  ‘During the last four years of the struggle for South Italy…the Byzantine Empire was handicapped by an internal struggle for control of the government and by war on its eastern front’ which reduced its capacity to put up resistance in Italy to the ever-encroaching Normans.  During the reign of Michael IV, the Byzantines had attempted to maintain their control in Italy by using the Normans as mercenaries, but the lack of substantial centrally controlled Byzantine forces in Italy allowed the Normans to take advantage of the fractious situation, and led to ‘difficulty retaining control over the [remaining Byzantine] strongholds in the south’ of Italy.  It was, therefore, not the strength of Norman military might that led to their increasing power in Byzantine possessions in southern Italy, but rather the increasingly weakening position of the Byzantine Empire, followed by the failure of the force under Meniaces, their most able commander, to defeat the Normans due to said leader’s attempt on the Byzantine throne in 1042.

Relations with the Papacy also played a pivotal role in the success of the conquest in southern Italy, brought about due to the increasingly hostile conflicts for power between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor towards the end of the 1050s.  For the Pope, the Normans provided security ‘against the dangerous authority of the German emperor’. For the Normans, the Pope acted as their feudal overlord, which gave legitimacy to the newly conquered territories, as well as allowing the Normans to consolidate those conquests through stability on their northern border.  Despite their military might and control of southern Italy, the lands conquered did not form a ‘kingdom’, and Robert Guiscard was but a count, needing ‘for form’s sake at least, a feudal superior.’ The Norman needs for these relations with the Papacy were paramount in the success of the conquests, providing legitimacy and stabilisation in order to consolidate their gains. 

In contrast to their conquests in southern Italy, the Norman conquest of Sicily provided the Normans with more widespread support from within the Western Church and from Catholic rulers. ‘Because his was a holy war against the Moslems, Roger had the wholehearted, unwavering support of the Church’ and could undertake a policy of conquest without the threat of outside interference.  Sicily was ripe for the taking during the period of Norman expansion into it in the latter half of the eleventh-century, with the island broken up into a variety of small autonomous states, similar to the situation that the Normans had taken advantage of in southern Italy.

The Normans ‘were assisted at the outset by the weakness of the enemy’ and were able to undertake a policy of conquest despite the fact that Roger ‘had only a few hundred knights at his disposal against the much larger forces of the Moslems’. The relatively small size of forces under Roger reduced the capacity of conquest through military might, and the adaptability and ingenuity of the Normans is again evident here in that Roger ‘organised successful raids [to capture territory], and he consolidated his gains by building castles to maintain them.’  There are comparisons here in the way the Normans were able to ensure the success of their conquests with the way William established his rule over England in the late 1060s.  Despite the large difference in numbers of available forces during the two conquests, the use of castles to maintain control over areas, with only a handful of men, was tantamount to the successful consolidation of rule over both territories.  Roger could achieve in Sicily with a few hundred knights what William did in England with a few thousand.  Of course, the conquest of Sicily took far longer, and although ‘By 1060 [Roger] had conquered the eastern part of the island… Palermo did not fall until 1072 and the Muslim emirs retained some territories in the south-east until 1091’.  The reasons for this however are not purely down to lack of military numbers; England was a relatively unified kingdom in 1066, whereas Sicily was an island split into numerous autonomous states.  In Sicily, the military capacity of the Normans is even more impressive when one looks at the need that the Normans had to constantly fight differing factions in order to gain small amounts of territory.  By twist of fate, this type of conquest allowed the Normans to consolidate their rule in each territory as it came under their control, and was significant in the successful outcome of the conquest.   

In addition to the military basis of the conquest, the ability in Sicily of the Norman rulers to adopt and adapt already present structures of law and government helped them to consolidate their rule over an ethnically and religiously diverse population.  There was a ‘policy of toleration in political and religious matters’ that were not present in much of Europe during the eleventh-century, and combined with the relatively small size of the Norman population in Sicily, the Norman governance of the island allowed for a relatively unchanged continuation of existing language, law and other cultural aspects for the native population.  The willingness of the Normans not to overhaul existing social, cultural and economic structures allowed the successful establishment of their rule over Sicily, playing a more important role in the successful outcome of the conquest than the military might with which they had initially established themselves.

The final conquest discussed here is the establishment of Norman rule in the Principality of Antioch during the First Crusade.  The role of Norman military might is again laid bare in the Crusade.  The role of Bohemund of Taranto is emphasised by many historians, and his ‘skilled combination of his footmen and mounted knights in action was directly responsible for the Moslem defeat [at Antioch].’  Bohemund’s elevation to the Principate of Antioch however does not rest upon the military might of his forces, but rather on political intrigue and opportunism.  Douglas argues that rather than Bohemund gaining possession of Antioch through legitimate means, the urgency of Raymond of Toulouse to continue onto Jerusalem left ‘Bohemund and the Normans in possession of Antioch’, and left a situation which Bohemund could take advantage of, due in part again to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire to enforce the return of their lost territory. 

Even more important in the successful conquest of Antioch was Bohemund’s urgency ‘to exploit the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in order to strengthen his own position.’  By establishing his own Latin bishops at Tarsus, Artah and Mamistra, and following this up in 1100 by establishing Bernard of Valence as the Latin Patriarch of Antioch and removing the Orthodox one, Bohemund created for himself a position of legitimacy within the Papacy, and gained valuable allies.  Although this did not result in large amounts of military reinforcements from the west, it did provide him with Western backing that helped maintain his position in Antioch.

The success of the Normans in Italy depended upon their adaptability rather than purely brute military strength.  ‘Since the Normans had come to Italy in small groups made up mostly of fighting men, they had adapted themselves to local conditions, taking over whatever they found valuable in each particular region, and often marrying into the most prominent local families.’  Their ability to integrate into the local population allowed a smoother transition in the change of leadership in a region, whilst marrying into local aristocracy placed them into the local power structures with legitimacy assured.  Military might helped to establish the Normans in many of the diverse regions of southern Italy, but their adaptability, and emphasis on integration with the local population, helped to ensure that the conquest of and unification of southern Italy under their rule was successful. The fact that the Normans were allowed to undertake this policy rests upon the divided nature of the peninsula in the eleventh-century, and the lack of a strong central authority provided the powder keg into which the Normans could light themselves. 

Furthermore, the influence of the weakness of the Byzantine Empire in this period played a major role in the success of the southern Norman conquests.  The Normans were able to take advantage of the unstable situations within territories previously held by the Byzantine Empire, and the internal strife and conflict in the Empire during the eleventh century allowed various groups, including the Normans, to chip away at their territory.  The fact that the Normans possessed a strong military dynamism allowed them to impose themselves in southern Italy and the Holy Lands.  Even in England, one can see the ability of the Normans to take advantage of unstable situations.  The death of Edward the Confessor without an heir pushed the Kingdom into a rocky situation, from which Harold Godwinson could take advantage.  The acquisition of a Papal banner, and the instability in England from rebellion and invasion left William with legitimisation and able to invade, establish himself in Britain, and wait for the Anglo-Saxon forces to rush to meet him.  Norman military might played an important role in the conquests of the eleventh century, but without a combination of weaknesses in the Byzantine Empire, that prevented its power from being used, and the Norman ability to incorporate existing systems into their governance of conquered territories, the military might that they held could not have maintained their conquests successfully in the long term. 




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