Normans and Slavery: Breaking the Bonds

Far from enslaving Anglo-Saxons under the Norman yoke, the Conquest brought freedom to many, as Marc Morris explains.

Slave labour? A man blows a horn, while four men cut hay with sickles and another holds a wheatsheaf. Eleventh century manuscript.The fortunes of modern Bristol were founded on slavery. During the 18th century the city boomed as a result of its participation in the export of Africans to North America. Regrettably there is no official monument in Bristol today to mark this episode in its history, only a plaque erected privately in 1997 and a footbridge named after a celebrated local slave, Pero. Nonetheless these memorials and the continued pressure on the civic authorities to erect something more prominent are enough to ensure that the city’s role in the slave trade will never be forgotten.

What has largely been forgotten, by contrast, is Bristol’s role in a slave trade that flourished in Britain some seven centuries earlier. Towards the end of the 11th century the merchants of Bristol were among England’s foremost exporters of slaves, in this case homegrown ones. Looking back from the 1120s the chronicler William of Malmesbury remembered:

They would purchase people from all over England and sell them off to Ireland in the hope of profit; and put up for sale maidservants after toying with them in bed and making them pregnant. You would have groaned to see the files of the wretches of people roped together, young people of both sexes, whose youth and beauty would have aroused the pity of barbarians, being put up for sale every day.

Malmesbury clearly felt that this was shameful behaviour, but then he was writing after the slave trade had been abolished. A generation or so earlier slavery and the slave trade had been widely accepted. In Anglo-Saxon England at least ten per cent of the population were slaves and possibly many more. One expert in the field has recently suggested that the true figure may have been as high as 30 per cent.

To be a slave was to be held in the most abject of conditions. As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female. ‘I go out at daybreak, goading the oxen to the field, and I join them to the plough; there is not a winter so harsh that I dare not lurk at home for fear of my master.’ So begins a famous passage written by Aelfric, a late tenth-century abbot of Eynsham, imagining the pains of an unfree ploughman. ‘Throughout the whole day I must plough a full acre or more ... I must fill the stall of the oxen with hay and supply them with water and carry their dung outside. Oh, oh, the work is hard. Yes, the work is hard, because I am not free.’

This passage – the only one in the surviving corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature to imagine life from a slave’s perspective – has given rise to the notion that the bulk of slaves were men and engaged in heavy agricultural work, such as ploughing. It is a skewed impression, reinforced by the prevalence of ploughmen recorded in Domesday Book. In fact, as other evidence makes clear, slaves might fill any number of functions: we find them occurring, for example, as cooks, weavers, millers and even priests. What’s more, a good many of them, perhaps even the majority, were women, kept in some cases as domestic servants or dairy maids, but also in many instances as concubines – the kind of slavery, in other words, that we tend to associate more readily with the harems of the Middle East in the Early Modern period rather than with England in the early Middle Ages. William of Malmesbury believed that the slave-traders of Bristol fornicated with their female captives before selling them on and it is probably significant in this regard that he emphasises their youth and beauty. Elsewhere he wrote about the wife of Earl Godwine (d.1053), who was said ‘to buy parties of slaves in England and ship them back to Denmark, young girls especially, whose beauty and youth would enhance their price’.

If you’ve never encountered this aspect of Anglo-Saxon England before, there is a ready explanation. To the founding fathers of academic history – the scholars of late Victorian and early 20th-century England – the Anglo-Saxons were ‘us’, and it was from them that we derived much of our identity and culture: not only our language, but also our cherished institutions, such as our shires and boroughs, and our instinctive tendency towards freedom, fair play and democracy. In the minds of many, the Anglo-Saxon witan was a forerunner of Parliament. Such scholars, unsurprisingly, chose not to dwell on the subject of Anglo-Saxon slavery, or sought to explain it away in terms that suggested it was somehow good for the slaves.

Another approach, still popular in the early 20th century, was to argue that by the late Saxon period, the 10th and 11th centuries, slavery was on the wane. The problem is that plenty of other evidence points in the opposite direction. If we comb through the pages of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for instance, we discover that when the companions of Alfred, brother of the future Edward the Confessor, were seized by Earl Godwine in 1036, ‘some of them were sold for money’ (the rest, including Alfred himself, were killed or mutilated). Similarly, when Godwine’s son, the future King Harold, raided the coast of Somerset in 1052, he ‘seized whatever he pleased, in cattle, captives and property’. Lastly, when the people of northern England rose against the rule of Harold’s brother Tostig in 1065 and invaded the shires further south: ‘They took many captives and carried them off north with them.’ The very matter-of-factness with which such examples are reported suggests that, at the time, slavery and slave-raiding were regarded in England as business as usual.

And yet, as the writings of William of Malmesbury make clear, by the early 12th century the world had moved on. By that time slave-trading, if not slavery itself, was a thing of the past. If we ask why the change had taken place, one factor stands out above all others: the Norman Conquest.

The Normans had been extremely keen on the slave trade, as you might expect, given that the Normans had once been Norsemen, Vikings who had settled in the area around France’s Seine estuary from the late ninth century. The Vikings, as their reputation suggests, were among the foremost exponents of the medieval slave trade, seizing men and women from the vulnerable shores of Europe and selling them on to Scandinavia or the Middle East. But in the course of the 10th century the Normans gradually abandoned their Viking roots and began adopting the culture and customs of their Frankish neighbours, embracing, for example, Christianity, the French language and also the Frankish art of fighting on horseback. Eventually, as part of this same process of acculturation, they also abandoned the slave trade. In the tenth century the Norman capital at Rouen had flourished partly as a result of the import and export of human cargoes, but references to the city’s slave market dry up around the turn of the first millennium.

Precisely why the Normans and the Franks turned against the practice is difficult to say. Historians were once inclined to put the shift down to economics, arguing that the rise of a monetary economy meant that lords found it more profitable to have rent-paying tenants than slaves, who might be costly to maintain. Latterly, however, this argument has fallen out of favour, not least because of the example of England, where slavery continued to flourish despite its buoyant economy and abundant silver coinage. Slaves kept as concubines in England were clearly not valued economically but for reasons of power and status. Historians are now more inclined to see the demise of slavery in northern France as the result of a shift in morals.

The idea that slavery in Europe declined as Christianity spread has long been discredited. Until the turn of the first millennium the Church had little problem with slavery. The Bible is full of stories of slaves and their masters; churchmen were generally content to urge slaves to be obedient and masters to be merciful. Nevertheless in the decades around the millennium the powerful Church reform movement began to take root and reformed churchmen took an increasingly dim view of concubinage and bastardy. In France lay leaders, who in the past had thought nothing of having several wives, now found themselves subjected to opprobrium, if they took up with more than one.

Perhaps more important were the simultaneous structural changes taking place in French society. The political fragmentation of France during the 10th century, the increase in knights and growth of castle-building, had made violence and warfare more endemic and, precisely for this reason, better regulated. Warriors concluded it was better to capture and ransom each other in war rather than risk death every time they took to the battlefield. At the same time the Peace of God movement urged the protection of non-combatants. By the 11th century young men and women were no longer a legitimate target in warfare, to be led away in chains once the fighting was over.

What happened in 1066, therefore, was that a people who were still comfortable with slavery and conducted war as a slave-hunt were conquered by a people who had recently abandoned both practices. This left the Normans with something of a moral dilemma: whether to respect the culture and customs of those they had conquered, or to impose their own set of values. Clearly the Conquest was not followed by any great edict of emancipation; if 20 or 30 per cent of the population were classed as slaves, such a move would have been wholly impractical. Nevertheless, where it can be measured we do witness a marked decline. Domesday Book shows that between 1066 and 1086 the number of slaves in Essex fell by 25 per cent. Some of this, of course, may have been due to the confusion caused by the Conquest itself, rather than by the moral scruples of England’s new Norman masters, many of whom (as Domesday also shows) were quite content to keep slaves on their newly acquired manors.

But the moral scruples were there, especially at the highest level. In 1070 William the Conqueror deposed the elderly pre-Conquest Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, and replaced him with Lanfranc, one of the leading lights of the reform movement and William’s own moral tutor since boyhood. The new archbishop was soon urging his pupil to abolish the slave trade and the Conqueror complied. It was at Lanfranc’s insistence, explains William of Malmesbury, that the king ‘frustrated the schemes of those scumbags who had an established practice of selling their slaves into Ireland’. Malmesbury noted that William was somewhat reluctant, since he enjoyed a share of the profits, but the record of the king’s own legislation shows that a ban was indeed put in place and that William had found a way of squaring the matter with his conscience. ‘I prohibit the sale of any man by another outside of the country,’ says the ninth law of William the Conqueror, ‘on pain of a fine to be paid in full to me.’ William’s personal attitude towards slavery can also be surmised from his only recorded visit to Wales, glibly reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1081: ‘The king led levies into Wales, and there freed many hundreds of people.’

It is not the purpose of this article to try to rehabilitate the Normans, whom the English at the time regarded with the fear and loathing that the conquered always reserve for their conquerors. The Normans established themselves in England with fire and sword and tremendous loss of human life: witness, most notoriously, the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North, which may have caused a death toll that ran into six figures. ‘In their unparalleled savagery,’ wrote the half-English, half-Norman Henry of Huntingdon in the early 12th century, ‘they surpassed all other peoples.’ Another Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, concurred: ‘They arrogantly abused their authority and mercilessly slaughtered the native people like the scourge of God smiting them for their sins.’

Yet in their attitudes towards slavery the Normans appear to have improved the lives of the most wretched people in Anglo-Saxon society: the sizeable percentage of the population, largely ignored by historians in the past, who have preferred to dwell on the free majority and their supposed virtues. The effect of the Conquest on slavery was not immediate and the Conqueror’s ban was clearly not wholly effective. As late as 1102 a Church council condemned ‘that shameful trade by which in England people used to be sold like animals’. But this was, significantly, the last ecclesiastical council to issue such a prohibition. By the time William of Malmesbury was writing in the 1120s slavery was gone and at least some of his contemporaries were willing to give credit where it was due. ‘After England began to have Norman lords’, wrote the monk Lawrence of Durham, ‘the English no longer suffered from outsiders that which they had suffered at their own hands. In this respect they found that foreigners treated them better than they had treated themselves.’

Marc Morris is a historian and broadcaster. His most recent book is The Norman Conquest (Hutchinson, 2012).