The Normans

part 2

This has serious consequences. It shuts us off from instructive parallels, and makes our judgements about the past short-sighted and unbalanced. Let me give you a small but significant example: in 1217 the government in England issued an order to its governor in Ireland that he was not in future to allow any Irishman to be appointed to high ecclesiastical office, but was to secure the appointment of worthy Englishmen. This, of course, is seen as anti-Irish and racist, and as typical of the antagonism between incomers and natives which lies at the root of the 'Irish problem'. Recently, however, I came across an exact parallel in English history: William the Conqueror ordered that no Englishmen were to be appointed as bishops or abbots. I came across this by chance; I had never read of it in English history books. English historians take for granted that the Norman conquest involved Normanisation in church and state. The Normans were a few thousand in a population of two million. To survive and get a grip on the country they had to seize control of all positions of authority. William's order was not racist, it was hard political necessity, ruthless but understandable. It was totally effective; Englishmen were eliminated from the higher ranks of the church for nigh on a hundred years. By contrast that order to the governor of Ireland in 1217 had only marginal effect and was rescinded after ten years. The English suffered far more from the Normans than the Irish ever did. In Domesday Book there is no trace of the great families which had ruled England before 1066; in Ireland the leading families whose names are familiar from long before the Normans arrived are still there four hundred years later.

The Normans, of course, arrived a century later in Ireland than in England. Many historians have questioned whether we should speak of 'Normans' in Ireland. Only a very few of the earliest incomers had been born in Normandy or held estates there; admittedly they certainly took a pride in their Norman ancestry, but for most of them the family links were remote, and their interests were much more bound up with the kingdom of England. So many historians call them 'Anglo-Normans'. There is an important point here which I do not dispute, but which I will ignore for one over-riding reason: being a Norman was not a matter of where you were born, it was a state of mind. It involved identifying with what was believed to be the distinctiveness of people of Norman stock which marked them out for a special destiny. Like all such belief it rested on myth-making; but it was nourished and fortified by the remarkable history of the Normans.

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