The BBC is to provide viewers with a definitive look at a seminal period of history, the resonances of which can still be felt today, in a season focusing on the Normans across BBC Two, BBC Four and BBC Learning. Leading the season will be The Normans, a three-part series on BBC Two that will examine the extraordinary expansion and unchecked ambition of this warrior race between the 10th and 13th centuries. The first part airs on Wednesday 4 August at 9pm.
Presented by Professor Robert Bartlett, the series will bring the history of the Normans to life by uncovering the personal stories of shadowy figures like Tancred of Hauteville, best remembered as a poor 11th-century Norman lord who fathered no less than 12 sons, two of whom left their homeland and risked their lives to become great rulers in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Sweeping across borders and centuries, Bartlett will journey from the stormy shores of Great Britain via Jerusalem to the Kingdom of Sicily, explaining how and why a dynasty of dukes and warriors became conquerors and kings. Bursting with colourful manuscripts, documents and artefacts, this series will give voice to an unfamiliar world of princess historians and mixed-race monks.
Martin Davidson, Commissioning Editor, History and Business, says: “The Battle of Hastings in 1066 is such an iconic landmark in our history, but what do we really know of the dynasty of dukes and warriors that staged this Norman invasion? And what do we know of the frenetic energy of the centuries that followed? I’m extremely pleased that a world authority like Robert Bartlett will be at the helm of our Norman season, providing BBC Two viewers with a definitive look at the warrior-race whose ambition and power transformed Europe and irrevocably changed the course of British history.”
In the first episode, Bartlett explores where the Normans came from and how they developed into the formidable force that conquered England in 1066. He tells how, under the leadership of a Scandinavian giant called Rollo, these descendants of the Vikings first established themselves in northern France and became an unstoppable force of Christian knights and warriors. They also established themselves as master builders of Christianity with the construction of extraordinary cathedrals across Normandy.
The second episode in the series sees Bartlett exploring the impact of the Norman Conquest of Britain and Ireland. He shows how William the Conqueror savagely cut down any opposition and built scores of castles and cathedrals to intimidate and control. He imposed a new aristocracy and commissioned Domesday Book, the greatest survey of England that had ever been attempted. This gave him an efficient instrument of control and a useful means of raising revenue.
England adapted to her new masters. Inter-marriage between the Normans and the English was common, giving rise to a transformation of the language and culture of the land. Bartlett argues that the political and cultural landscapes of Scotland, Wales and Ireland were also forged by the Normans. In Scotland, the Normans were invited in while they faced opposition in Wales and never managed to take the whole country. In Ireland, Bartlett shows how the Normans created a division between the English and the Irish that still exists to this day, laying the blueprint for colonialism in the modern world.
In the final episode Bartlett explores the impact of the Normans on southern Europe and the Middle East, far from the Norman kingdoms of Normandy and England. In the 11th century, the Normans spread south, fighting for control of southern Italy and the island of Sicily. There they created their most prosperous kingdom, in which different cultures lived alongside one another in relative harmony. Christianity and Islam existed in mutual tolerance and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily became a great centre of international culture and learning. Scholars from east and west flocked there, encouraging an exchange of ideas that would change the world.
Events in the Middle East provoked the more aggressive side of the Norman character. In 1095, the Pope called for Holy War against Islam. The Normans enthusiastically took up the challenge and headed east as part of the First Crusade. They passed through Constantinople, besieged and won the city of Antioch, and finally attacked the Holy City, winning Jerusalem back from the Muslims. Norman warriors rushed to liberate the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim hands. This bloody conquest left a deep rift between Christianity and Islam which is still being felt to this day
Alongside The Normans, Dr Stephen Baxter will present a one-off BBC Two documentary on The Domesday Book. Locked in a special case deep within the British National Archives, this Norman treasure holds many secrets of the past. This special programme will shake the dust off Domesday and reveal that this ancient public record unleashed enough red tape to help create the modern nation state.
Domesday records the trauma of the Norman Conquest – the greatest social and political upheaval in England’s history. It confirmed that land once owned by the English was now legally in the hands of the Normans. This was a revolution in land ownership. Baxter tells the human and political story of this drama of dispossession. He also finds out the true purpose of the Domesday survey. He proves that it couldn’t have been used to collect taxes and argues that Domesday Book is about something far more important than money – its real purpose was to confer revolutionary new powers on the monarchy in Norman England.
BBC Four will be turning the spotlight on the art and culture of the Normans. In Norman Walks, Dan Snow will uncover the forgotten Norman Empire – one that has been largely overlooked but which laid the foundation for modern Britain. Each episode will take in prominent Norman landmarks and feature a mixture of aerial archive and bespoke filming via helicopter.
In the first episode of the series, which airs also on Wednesday, August 4th, at 10 p, Dan Snow’s exploration on foot through Norman Britain begins on the Sussex coastline, on the cliffs overlooking the Channel where William the Conqueror and his army first encountered British soil in the run-up to Hastings. But while the end result of William’s invasion is in no doubt, how much do we really know about events leading up to the Battle? From Hastings to the town of Battle, Dan’s first walk traces events in the two-week period between the Norman landings and the battle itself. By exploring the coastline and investigating what the opposing armies did for two weeks, Dan begins to satisfy his curiosity about why the battle took place when and where it did. But by studying the coast and countryside, Dan discovers that there’s a marked lack of hard evidence and a sizeable amount of myth surrounding the most famous date in British history.
Other episodes in the series include: Herefordshire & Monmouthshire: The March Of Wales, and Yorkshire: The Northern Abbeys. In The Art Of The Anglo-Saxons, Dr Janina Ramirez will tell the story of how England in the Dark Ages became one of the art capitals of Christendom. She charts the development of Anglo-Saxon art from the beautiful jewellery that adorned the first violent Pagan invaders through to the stunning Christian manuscripts they would become famed for. Examining many of the greatest Anglo Saxon artworks– such as the Sutton Hoo Treasures, the Staffordshire Hoard, the Franks Casket and the Lindesfarne Gospels, she unearths for the first time the world of secret codes and symbols that tell the facinating story of the Anglo Saxon’s pagan past and their Christian future. A cultural legacy brought to an abrupt and tragic end by the Norman Invasion of 1066.
Poet Simon Armitage will show how the legend of King Arthur matured in the years after the Norman invasion in The Making of King Arthur. Revealing the greatest masterworks of Arthurian literature, Simon shows how the legend matured in the years after the Norman invasion, telling Arthur’s own tragic story in the process and asking what role Arthur serves in Britain’s national consciousness.
The Norman Season will also launch Hands On History, a two-year BBC Learning campaign offering audiences inspiring opportunities to take the next step from watching programmes to discovering history around them. Working in partnership with more than 20 heritage and history organisations, Hands On History will offer a range of events and activities as part of the Norman Season, including Norman walks.
Nina Bell, Project Executive at BBC Learning, says: “Walking in the footsteps of the Normans is a great way to get out and about this summer and Hands On History makes it easy to engage with and learn about the Normans wherever you live, from Pembroke to Jersey to Cumbria. There are lots of downloadable resources on our website and I hope everyone, young and old, enjoys discovering the fascinating story of the Normans over the summer holidays.”
1066 and all that: how the Normans shaped Britain – article by Robert Bartlett in the Telegraph