Norman and Saxon

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title] Norman and Saxon. The Normans were inhabitants of Normandy, a semi-autonomous duchy in Northern France, who under the command of William, Duke of Normandy (‘William the Conqueror’) invaded England in 1066. The Saxons were originally just one of several Germanic tribes who invaded England in the years following the departure of the Romans. They settled mainly in the south and southwest of England. Later the term ‘Saxon; or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was used more generally to distinguish ‘English’ people from the ‘Celtic’ Welsh, Scots and Irish, and then, eventually, as here, to describe the indigenous inhabitants of England who were conquered by the Normans.

[sub-title] A.D. ll00. William the Conqueror died in 1087. He was succeeded as King of England by one of his several sons William II who was known as ‘William Rufus.’ Rufus was childless and on his death in 1100 was succeeded by Henry I, one of his younger brothers. Although it was still the Norman dynasty ruling England, Henry was far more assimilated to English ways than his predecessors. This presumably is why the date of his accession is used as the subtitle. He epitomises the growing closer together of the Normans and Saxons that is the main theme of the poem.

[lines 1-2] Norman Baron …my share. Fletcher makes great play with the fact that although the Norman barons who helped in the invasion of England were often rewarded with handsome estates taken from the conquered Saxons, William:

…kept enormous tracts of English land in his own hands, and so made the Crown ten times richer than any baron. (A School History, p. 49)

This kind of centralisation is seen as making a distinct contribution to the unifying of England by concentrating power in the monarch’s hands and reducing the ancient rivalries between individual barons.

[line 3] When we conquered the Saxon at Hastings In 1066, and always, for Fletcher and Kipling, a moment and a date to savour. As Fletcher’s opening sentence of this chapter, the starting point of which is dated 1066:

So, at last there was going to be a real government in this country, and it was going to do its duty. A School History, p. 47.

[line 6] justice and rights. Presumably the ‘natural’ rights that someone as independently minded as the Saxon feels he is owed, though they were not valid in any legal or constitutional sense. Fletcher points out that William was impressed by some of the institutions he found established in England, the sheriffs especially and ‘the rude court of justice which was held in every county.’ A School History, p. 48.

[line 9] Gascony archers…Picardy spears. Gascony and Picardy were semi-autonomous areas of France. Both were renowned for providing other areas with mercenaries. Ralph Durand comments on this line:

‘At the time immediately following the Norman conquest of England, portions of France were so often conquered and reconquered in the wars between rival princes, that men such as the Gascons and Picards, scarcely knew, and did not care at all, who was their lawful sovereign.’ A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1914), p. 284.

[line 11] Thane…serf. A thane was an Anglo-Saxon noble, a landowner who gave his allegiance to the king. A serf was a peasant who was tied to the land and paid fees in cash or services to his lord or thane.

[line 19] don’t cut off their fingers. To prevent them from drawing a bow, a particularly foolish punishment for someone who, according to the Baron, is potentially ‘the best man-at-arms you can find’ [line 20].

[line 22] Bishops … poor parish priests. Another fairly obvious social contrast, like the thane/serf example earlier, though its meaning seems more vague. Perhaps it refers to the conflicts between church and monarch at this time, with the bishops needing to be treated politely but not encouraged in their ambitions, while the poor parish priests would have been more at one with the people themselves and not a disruptive force.

[line 21] Say ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘ours’…instead of ‘you fellows’ and ‘I.’ Another classic Kipling view of the need for the conqueror to win over the conquered. Fletcher’s lines leading directly to this poem might well have been drafted by Kipling himself:

These clever Normans, all but a few of the greatest barons, soon made common cause with their tenants, soon became English at heart. Over them, too, the good land threw its dear familiar spell, and made them love it, beyond all things. A School History, p. 51.

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2005 All rights reserved