The Norman yoke refers to the oppressive aspects of feudalism in England attributed to the impositions of William the Conqueror, his retainers and their descendants. The term was used in English nationalist discourse in the mid-17th century.
The medieval chronicler Orderic Vitalis believed that the Normans had imposed a yoke on the English: "And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed". The culturally freighted term of a "Norman yoke" first appears in an apocryphal work published in 1642 during the English Revolution, under the title The Mirror of Justices; the book was a translation of Mireur a justices, a collection of 13th century political, legal, and moral fables, written in Anglo-Norman French, thought to have been compiled and edited in the early 14th century by renowned legal scholar Andrew Horn. Even though the book was obviously a work of fiction—obvious to anyone living in the fourteenth century—at the time of its publication in 1642 it was presented, and accepted, as historical fact. The Norman Yoke had enough truth in it to be useful. But its presence in an argument that purports to be historical can be a red flag to a cautious reader.
Frequently, critics following the Norman Yoke model would claim Alfred the Great or Edward the Confessor as models of justice. In this context, Magna Carta is seen as an attempt to restore pre-conquest English rights, if only for the gentry. When Sir Edward Coke reorganised the English legal system, he was keen to claim that the grounds of English common law were beyond the memory or register of any beginning and pre-existed the Norman conquest. He did not use the phrase "Norman Yoke" however.
The idea of the Norman Yoke characterized the nobility and gentry of England as the descendants of foreign usurpers who had destroyed a Saxon golden age. Such a reading was an extremely powerful myth for the poor and excluded classes of England. Whereas Coke, John Pym, Lucy Hutchinson and Sir Henry Vane saw Magna Carta rights as being primarily those of the propertied classes, during the prolonged 17th-century constitutional crisis in England and Scotland, the arguments were also taken up in a more radical way by the likes of Francis Trigge, John Hare, John Lilburne, John Warr and Gerrard Winstanley of the radical Diggers even calling for an end to primogeniture and for the cultivation of the soil in common. "Seeing the common people of England by joynt consent of person and purse have caste out Charles our Norman oppressour, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake." wrote Winstanley on behalf of the Diggers, in December 1649. In The True Levellers Standard Advanced Winstanley begins:
- O what mighty Delusion, do you, who are the powers of England live in! That while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a Free People; yet you still lift up that Norman yoke, and slavish Tyranny, and holds the People as much in bondage, as the Bastard Conquerour himself, and his Councel of War.
Revival of interest
Interest in the idea was revived in the eighteenth century, in such texts as the Historical Essay on the English Constitution (1771) and John Cartwright's Take Your Choice (1777) and featured in the debate between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. It was also championed by Thomas Jefferson.
By the 19th century, the Norman Yoke lost whatever historical significance it may have had and was no longer a 'red flag' in political debate. But it still carried its popular history usefulness, conjuring up an imagined Anglo-Saxon golden England, as in Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe where a 'Saxon proverb' is put in the mouth of Wamba (Ch. xxvii):
'Norman saw on English oak.
On English neck a Norman yoke;
Norman spoon to English dish,
And England ruled as Normans wish;
Blithe world in England never will be more,
Till England's rid of all the four.
Among Victorian Protestants, the idea of the "Norman Yoke" was sometimes linked with anti-Catholicism, with claims that the English Anglo-Saxon Church was freer of Papal influence than the Norman one. They cited events such as the Pope's blessing of William the Conqueror and the homages of various Plantagenet kings to the Papacy as proof of this idea. This linking of "Anglo-Saxon" English nationalism and anti-Catholicism influenced Charles Kingsley's novel Hereward the Wake (1866), which, like Ivanhoe, helped popularise the image of a romantic Anglo-Saxon England destroyed by the Normans. On the other hand, Thomas Carlyle rejected the idea of the "Norman Yoke"; in his History of Friedrich II of Prussia Carlyle argued the Norman conquest had been beneficial because it had helped unify England.
Notably, HN Brailsford's 'The Levellers and the English Revolution' 'Edited and prepared for publication' by Christopher Hill (Cresset Books, 1961; Spokesman Books, 2nd Edition, 1983), index the term, 'Noman Conquest myth', with ten entries (and one also on p553) but not the term 'the iron Norman Yoke' (e.g. on page 129 of the Spokesman second edition).
- (BBC) Mike Ibeji, "The Conquest and its Aftermath"
- "... that apocryphal work The Mirror of Justices, which, mainly through the influence of Coke, was long regarded as a serious authority on law" (Cambridge History of English and American Literature, vol. VIII, section xiii.8). The Mirror of Justices was republished by the Selden Society, vol. 7, 1893, W.J. Whittaker, editor; it is one of the sources for Anglo-Norman Law French that was used to compile The Anglo-Norman Dictionary, using a manuscript of the first third of the fourteenth century at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The Mireur a justices introduced the anecdote of King Alfred absent-mindedly burning the cakes.
- Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England, Denis G. Paz (Stanford University Press), 1992 (pgs. 2,3,64).
- Clare A. Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: Saxons and Normans in Nineteenth-Century British literature(University of Southern California), 1988
- " Without the Normans, Thomas Carlyle demanded, what would it (England) have been? 'A gluttonous race of Jutes and Angles capable of no grand combinations, lumbering about in pot-bellied equanimity;not dreaming of heroic toil and silence and endurance such as leads to the high places of the Universe'. " David McKie, McKie's Gazetteer: A Local History of Britain. Atlantic Books, ISBN 184354654X (p. 246).
- Michael Wood The Norman Yoke: Symbol or Reality?, Comic-book history, website of the BBC
- Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution, 1958
- Marjorie Chibnall, The Debate on the Norman Conquest (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7190-4913-X The "Norman yoke" in the context of the broader historiography of the Conquest.
- HN Brailsford, 'The Levellers and the English Revolution' 'Edited and prepared for publication' by Christopher Hill (Cresset Books, 1961; Spokesman Books, 2nd Edition, 1983).
- Michael Wood BBC History Norman Yoke website. Comic-book history, website of the BBC
- BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time - Episode on the Norman Yoke