Interview - Levi Roach, author of 'Empires of the Normans', on the history of the Stormin' Normans
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
OK, are you ready?
In the next 20 seconds, we want you to list everything you know about the Normans!
(20 seconds later)
How did you do? If you are anything like us, you managed to put three things on your list:
William the Conqueror, The Battle of Hastings and Castles. Lots of Castles.
Considering the Normans had such a massive role to play in history and were hugely influential on not just Europe but the Mediterranean and the Middle East too, this is a pretty puny list.
But fear not! If you want to make sure that the next time you visit a blog and someone springs on you a Norman-themed list writing exercise you can think of more than twenty things to include, then the following interview is a must-read.
Also, if you don't live in fear of surprise list-making challenges and just want to learn something about history, then this interview is for you too.
We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to question Dr. Levi Roach; associate professor at the University of Exeter, award-winning historian, and author of such highly regarded books as 'Kingship and Consent in Anglo-Saxon England', 'King Æthelred 'the Unready', and 'Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium'.
In his new book, Empires of Normans. Levi has written a popular - and hugely entertaining - account of the Normans, so seemed the perfect person for us to ask our entirely uninformed questions about the Normans!
So, if you'd like to know why most of us know so little about the Normans, how the Normans helped forge Great Britain, and why so many of them were called William, then read on!
Imagining History: Could you tell us a little more about your book, Empires of the Normans?
Dr Levi Roach: Yes, of course! It’s a narrative history of the Normans, running from the foundation of the future duchy of Normandy c. 911 right up into the thirteenth century. It’s told largely through the life stories of individual Norman rulers and magnates, so people like Rollo, the semi-legendary founder of Normandy, and William the Conqueror.
When it comes to the Normans, I tend to just think of the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror, and a nasty case of castle-building addiction, but I'm guessing this is only a teeny tiny part of the picture?
Yes, there’s a great deal more, which is why I wrote the book. Even in Britain and Ireland, Norman influence was more complex and far-reaching than we often think. It can be seen in England well before 1066, then in the following years can be traced in Wales, Scotland, and (eventually) Ireland. Moreover, while William the Conqueror and his heirs were establishing a dominant position in Britain, Norman bands were making equally impressive conquests in the Mediterranean, founding the future kingdom of Sicily in southern Italy, nearly overthrowing the Byzantine Empire in modern Greece and Turkey, and participating in the First Crusade. And in all of these regions, their impact was cultural and religious as well as political and military.
What lesser-known aspects of Norman history should be right up there with the Battle of Hastings in our public knowledge?
Writing from a British perspective, I’d say that they had an impact on Wales and Scotland almost every bit as transformative as they did on England. More generally, I think it’s that the Norman conquests do not begin in 1066: by this point, Norman groups had already secured control of large parts of southern Italy, where they went on to found one of Europe’s most powerful and administratively sophisticated kingdoms. (And of course, Normandy itself had been conquered by Rollo in the early tenth century!)
Why is it that many of us have lost touch with so much of Norman history?
I think the magnetic pull of 1066 has a lot to answer for here. It means we talk a lot about the Normans – particularly here in England (where I reside) – but from a very narrow perspective. As a result, we easily forget other parts of the story.
The Normans did a lot of conquering, what made their armies so dominating?
I think three factors were decisive. The first is that the Normans, much like their immediate neighbours in northern France, were at the cutting edge when it came to the development of castles and heavy cavalry (i.e. knights). These made it easier for them to conquer territory – and to hold it once conquered. At least as important, however, is that they chose their opponents carefully: William struck at England when the succession was being disputed in 1066, while the Norman groups in southern Italy exploited divisions amongst (and existing rivalries between) their Byzantine and Islamic opponents. Finally, once the Normans had succeeded in these theatres, they had both the confidence and the know-how to replicate this in Wales, Ireland, and North Africa.
How did you go about researching this expansive history and then retell it so it all fits into 320 pages?
This was probably the funnest part of the project. No one is a leading expert in all aspects of Norman activity, so it was a joy to be able to read widely and learn new things. I was fortunate that I am friends with many people expert in those areas I knew less well, so I was able to get them to help vet those chapters. When it came to telling the story concisely, that’s where following the careers of individual figures helped. What’s offered is a full history of the Normans, but not one that worriers about recounting every single battle: the point is to get a flavour of the Norman phenomenon in all its glorious variety.
What's the weirdest piece of Norman historical trivia that you have ever learned?
I’m not sure if it qualifies as ‘weird’, but one of my favourite Norman facts is that the future Stuart kings of Scotland and latterly England were descended from a Norman aristocratic family that settled in Scotland under King David I, so the Normans gave us Great Britain. (For the time being, at least…)
And finally, What's the deal with so many Normans being called William?
I think there are three things going on here. First, William was a popular French aristocratic when Viking groups first settled what would become Normandy. This probably explains why the first duke’s son and heir was called William, creating a family tradition later reflected in the naming of William the Conqueror. Second, after William had conquered England in 1066, he became something of a model monarch, particularly for his descendants. Third, however, is that they actually aren’t all called William! Quite a few leading figures in England and Normandy are, but in southern Italy, the favoured names were Robert and Roger.
Well, there you go! Thanks so much Levi. We've learned loads and I'm sure our readers have too!
If you'd like to say hello to Levi, you can find him on Twitter here @DrLRoach
If you'd like to read more about the history of the Normans, then check out Levi's new book 'Empires of the Normans'.