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The End of Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire

Prior to the Conquest of England in 1066, Herefordshire had already become home to a handful of Norman lords who were favourites and acquaintances of Edward the Confessor. Some of these Normans even built castles, and Herefordshire is home to three of the four known pre-Conquest castles in England. Ewyas Harold Castle was built c.1050, while Hereford Castle and Richard's Castle were both built in 1052.

Harold Godwinson owned large areas of land in Herefordshire, and on his death at the Battle of Hastings these lands would have passed into the control of William the Conqueror. Harold was most probably joined in battle by his most faithful thegns from Herefordshire. After their defeat those that survived would have most likely found their lands forfeited to William, and so many chose not to return home.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 only two Englishmen are noted as still holding considerable lands, and that is out of a total of 36 landowners recorded for Herefordshire. These men are Eadric of Leysters and Ælmer who, judging by their lands, had once been important Anglo-Saxon men. For one reason or another they had managed to keep hold of their lands even after the Normans had moved in. That is not to say that other Englishmen did not hold land. The Domesday Book mentions other Englishmen (and sometimes women) who are recorded as being tenants of the Norman lords, even of the King himself. These Englishmen are in the minority, however, and the overall effect is of the displacement of the original English landowners in favour of the Normans.

However, Herefordshire was not prepared to lie down and let the Normans take control without a struggle, and there was organised resistance to the "foreigners" in the county. One particular Anglo-Saxon in this area who was especially opposed to the Normans, and who is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1067, is Eadric the Wild. Eadric was a large landowner in Herefordshire and Shropshire, and his lands are recorded in the Domesday Book. He was not in favour of the idea of forfeiting his lands to William, so he joined forces with the Welsh Kings Rhiwallon and Bleddyn and together they made raids in Herefordshire up to the River Lugg.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:

"And Prince Eadric and the Welsh became hostile and they attacked the castle-men in Hereford, and did them many injuries. And here the king set a great tax on the wretched people ..." (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Worcester Manuscript 1066, pp. 200-201)

Whether the ordinary commoner of Herefordshire would have joined these rebellions is unclear. They had no large areas of land that were at threat, the raids risked the little property that they had, and there was even the possibility of enslavement by their supposed Welsh allies if they were unsuccessful.

Those Anglo-Saxons who did choose to fight would have found themselves up against a new and efficient type of military, for the Normans were people with a military mind. The most obvious manifestation of their military prowess was the castle. Castles had never been seen in England before the arrival of the first Normans, and these structures were probably the best way to guard against the English and Welsh raids. A castle could be used defensively to protect the lord and his men at times of attack, and it could also be used offensively as both a base from which to mount a raid into enemy territory and a handy headquarters for troops and weapons. A castle could also be used to house hostages, who were an extremely important bartering tool in times of war.

As has already been mentioned, there were only four Norman castles in England prior to the Norman Conquest and three of these were in Herefordshire (Ewyas Harold, Hereford and Richard's Castle). This indicates the importance of Herefordshire at that time as a county on the border between the Anglo-Saxons, who were subjects of King Edward, and the Welsh, who were not. After the Conquest it was an area that was not only used as a buffer zone against the Welsh raids, but was also a base for expeditions by the Normans into Wales with the intention of oppressing that country.

In a short period of time the Normans had become both the major landowners and the men in charge of administration and justice. The Normans were also responsible for the end of slavery in England, as they absorbed this section of society into the class that they called villeins. These were men who were free but "owed" service to their local lord, such as work on his lands. The Domesday Survey for Herefordshire lists 1, 730 villeins out of a population of 4,453. There are also 739 serfs or servants listed, but these would be freemen attached to a particular lord.

The castles and military nature of the Normans eventually led to the suppression of the Welsh, although the Normans never actually managed to conquer them, but simply existed "peacefully" alongside them. The Welsh had been posing an ever-present threat since before the Roman Conquest.

The Normans had quickly put their stamp on English society but the changes did not extend to all areas of life. Most place-names continued in their Anglo-Saxon forms, although a few had Norman personal names attached, such as Edwyn Ralph and Mansell Lacy. Norman French may have become the administrative and judicial language but in everyday life Anglo-Saxon English continued to be spoken, and even today we are known as England and the English rather than as Normandy and the French.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]

Last Updated: 12/10/2009 16:38:00