Although that date every schoolchild knows, 1066, was indeed the date of the Norman Conquest, the influence on England of the Normans predated the Battle of Hastings. Edward the Confessor was brought up in Normandy, and his Saxon courtiers were at times eclipsed by Normans, just as the church was infiltrated by them in his reign. Perhaps the greatest Norman building in the country is Westminster Abbey, finished at the very end of Edward's reign.
When Edward died the future of England was far from certain: Harold Godwinson seized the throne, with the support of the Witan, the great council of the land. Edgar the Atheling had a better claim, but was young and powerless. Tostig, Harold's younger brother, stated he had been promised the throne by the Confessor, and strangely allied himself with the Danish Harald Hardraada who also claimed it through a very tenuous link generations earlier. William Duke of Normandy was another who claimed Edward had promised him the throne, and he had also supposedly forced Harold, when shipwreck had delivered him to William's hands, to support his claim with solemn promises. The country was up for grabs.
Destiny delivered England to William . His attempts to cross the Channel in August and September 1066 were thwarted by contrary winds, thus Harald and Tostig invaded in the North first. They were defeated by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge, but his exhausted and depleted army then had to march to the South Coast where injudiciously he immediately attacked William's force, which had rested and prepared for two weeks since landing at Pevensey at the end of September. At the Battle of Hastings on October 14 1066 the Saxons came very close to victory, their defensive wall holding against many onslaughts. But when the Saxons attacked, first on seeing a section of the enemy retreating in chaos, and then when twice fooled into thinking this was the case, they fell in great numbers. The day was lost for the Saxons when Harold himself was killed, and to compound the disaster two of his brothers died with him.
William after relatively little further resistance was crowned in Westminster on Christmas Day 1066 , the event marred by his guards slaughtering bystanders when they erroneously thought he was in danger.
For the next few years William faced rebellions and opposition: Harold's sons raided from exile in Ireland; Sweyn II of Denmark joined rebels in the North, eventually having to be bought off with Danegeld - twice; the Scots raided; Hereward and others in East Anglia kept up resistance.
But Norman military might, and William's undoubted leadership and political skills, prevailed. The Normans also enjoyed military advantages: they were adept at mounted warfare, giving them speed and a strike weapon the Saxons lacked; and they were capable castle builders, their rapidly constructed motte-and-bailey fortifications providing refuge while more permanent strongholds were planned and made.
The greatest threat to William came from The North. This was met in 1169 and 1170 with effective savagery: disloyal areas from The Borders down to Staffordshire were laid waste. Whole villages were burned, along with crops, stores, tools and anything else of value to rebels. William was not only chastising his enemies, he was showing potential opponents what their fate would be.
It has been estimated that in a population of roughly one million, 150,000 were put to the sword or starved in The North, Yorkshire in particular suffering. It can be argued that economic inequalities in present times have their roots in the Harrying, when the infrastructure and leadership of the region was devastated.
One further statistic here: the Normans in England at this time numbered fewer than 10,000 knights, one per cent of the total population. William's power was thus based on organisation.
William strengthened the shire system established under the Saxons, local government given power to resolve problems quickly before they grew. William decapitated the Saxon opposition by impoverishing the old nobility, confiscating the lands of those who had fought him at Hastings, and anyone who offered opposition subsequently. These lands, along with associated goods and chattels, were divided among his Norman allies. The distribution was very careful, however, each major figure given holdings spread over the entire country to prevent the creation of a regional rival. For example Roger de Montgomerie, first Earl of Shrewsbury, in addition to most of Shropshire, held lands in Sussex, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, Middlesex, Warwickshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Hampshire, and Staffordshire.
The newly enriched Barons had to provide the King with soldiers as part of their fealty, thus they had first to subjugate the Saxons on their holdings. This was effected by the building of castles, and the combination of violent force and legal authority.
William, once he had finally quelled resistance, took stock of his holdings in the great census consolidated into the two volumes of The Domesday Book, mooted in 1085 and compiled by the end of 1086. This facilitated tax gathering, but it also recorded title to lands, tidying up administrative loose ends. And it gave him a picture of what had been before his reign with details of Edward's time, to give a glimpse of economic potential when the land had recovered.
The Norman elite reinforced their authority by taking over the church. Lanfranc was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and by the end of the 11th century not one bishopric had a Saxon holder. To symbolise their power too the Normans began the construction of the great cathedrals and abbeys: at Ely, St Albans, Durham, and Winchester among others. Our countryside is still filled with Norman churches, in village and town, made to a regular cruciform pattern, with the Norman arch decorating the buildings a reminder to the populace of who ruled now from court to chancel.
William began changing the landscape in another way too: he delineated The New Forest for his hunting pleasure - Thetford Chase is another example. William, though he grew obese in later years, loved hunting, and poachers were routinely mutilated for spoiling his pleasure.
We can still see too many of the fortifications that anchored the Normans in England: Norwich Castle, on a hill raised to improve its strategic position; Rochester Castle as a key to the Medway; Oakham Castle in the Midlands; and of course The White Tower at the Tower of London, the greatest contemporary symbol of them all.
When William died in 1087 his possessions were divided between Robert, his eldest son, who took Normandy, and William Rufus (Rufus meaning the red-headed, or the ruddy-faced) inheriting England - or stealing it, as he raced to London and arranged a rapid coronation before Robert could prevent it.
Rufus proved a very different king to William. Once he was able he plundered the church, leaving senior positions vacant in order to retain their revenue for the crown. Legends and myths abound about him: one authority at least argues he was a devil-worshipper; as he never married and rumours of 'vice' circulated during and after his reign, he is believed by some to have been homosexual; and he emptied the royal coffers in a life of excess. But Rufus did cement the Norman position in the country, building Carlisle Castle to defend against Scottish incursions; strengthening the border against the frequent Welsh raids by building or improving the fortifications defending the marches such as Ludlow Castle and Shrewsbury Castle.
William Rufus died in 1100 mysterious circumstances, shot through the eye by a hunting companion while out in The New Forest. His younger brother Henry succeeded him, and can be seen as returning to the efficient and effective rule of The Conqueror. Henry rapidly married into the Saxon line of the rulers of Wessex, this simple act helping to unite the country. In his day he was nicknamed Beauclerk for his use and control of the legal system - he created the Curia Regis, a powerful and wide ranging court that ensured taxation was collected and that justice was done, and in later times was called The Lion of Justice. Henry - shockingly for the era - imprisoned for life his elder brother Robert, his theoretical overlord, keeping him in Cardiff Castle after the two had fought in Normandy, a ruthless act that ensured further peaceful years.
Henry's tragedy was the loss of his two sons, drowned in the White Ship in 1120. He named his daughter Matilda as his heir, but on his death in 1135 his nephew Stephen was given the throne, creating a new division in the land when she invaded to reclaim it. Stephen's reign was vacillating, and a disaster for the entire country, frequently encapsulated in the phrase "nineteen long winters." His reign saw a renewed age of castle building, but this time it was driven by local overlords seizing territory and consolidating their personal power behind thick stone walls. The rule of law that had been the great foundation of Norman rule, and a benefit to the English people, was shattered for much of Stephen‚s reign.
The long and bloody war with Matilda's supporters was ended with a compromise - Stephen, whose son had pre-deceased him, was allowed to continue as king until his death, but then the throne passed to Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, the first Plantagenet king. So when Stephen died in 1154, buried in Faversham Abbey that he had constructed along with the fabulous red stone Furness Abbey, the Norman era ended and a new one began.
But of course the Norman legacy lived on, and some aspects of it continue to this day.
England has a magnificent treasury of Norman churches and castles - as does indeed Scotland, though that was by choice rather than conquest, seen in buildings like Dunfermline Abbey and St Margaret's Chapel in Edinburgh.
The English legal system has strong Norman elements within it, even to the extent that a Bill only becomes an Act of Parliament after the Queen has pronounced "la Reine le veult", meaning the Queen wishes it.
As already mentioned, the North has arguably been economically emasculated since the Harrying, though it became more united with the rest of the country at the same time, its linguistic (the North spoke a Scandinavian tinged dialect not easily understood by those in the South of England) and other ties with Scandinavia broken by the invaders, who indeed took all of England from the Scandinavian sphere of influence and moved us within the Western European, with huge cultural and religious implications.
And most significantly of all for the world, perhaps, the Norman invasion saw English develop into a new stage, a highly flexible lingua franca part Germanic, part Scandinavian, and part French, with a consequently enlarged vocabulary but relatively simple grammar.
Most of the English aristocracy has Norman roots, reflecting the imposition of a top tier on English society by William and his heirs. This too is seen in our language, with the famous example of meat terms being mainly derived from French - mutton (mouton), beef (boeuf) gammon (jambon), pork (porc), while the beasts themselves had or have other linguistic roots - swine, sheep, and cow.
It is a fruitless if intriguing exercise wondering what if Harold had beaten William at Hastings. The Normans won the day, and the Normans it was who laid the foundations for much of modern Britain.
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