‘The Norman Yoke’: Uses of the Past During the English Civil War


At first glance, the Norman Conquest of 1066 may appear distant to the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. Yet, strikingly they bear a close connection. The legal and constitutional debates raised during the 1600s often drew on the past as a means of argument and rhetoric. One of the foremost ways of doing this was by using the idea of a ‘Norman Yoke’. This myth stated that since William I’s invasion, the English had been subjected to outside oppression and that before the Norman Conquest they had lived in a free and equal society. It was appropriated by various factions within the Parliamentarian movement during the 17th century, ranging from the egalitarian Diggers, to confidants of Oliver Cromwell. The way in which these groups used the myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’ shows how different narratives of the past have and can be used politically, reflecting the contested nature of the past.

The idea of a supposed ‘yoke’ was based on an understanding of a more idyllic and simple past. A famous essay by Christopher Hill in 1955 tried to show the ‘Norman Yoke’ as part of a wider tradition of theories based on lost rights and a primitive existence. Hill explains that by the 17th century, the idea of a lost past increasingly became associated with the notion that this utopian age had been disturbed by the implementation of authority, through structures of governance. In the context of the ‘yoke’, these political innovations came about as a result of the Norman Conquest.  For example in 1638, Thomas Randolph declared that enclosures and marriage were deplorable human inventions. Furthermore, the presence of the utopia ‘Arcadia’ and themes of pastoralism in literature joined together with the idea of a primitive Anglo-Saxon society to form part of a wide range of thinking on a supposed lost ‘Golden Age’. In this way, the idea of the ‘Norman Yoke’ weaved present political concerns with invented traditions of the past.

The Continuity or Discontinuity of English Law

The way the idea of a ‘Norman Yoke’ was used in political debate must be understood in the context of the legal and constitutional issues surrounding it. One of the issues raised was the idea of continuity or discontinuity in English common law. The Mirror of Justices was a text from the 13th century and during the Elizabethan era, it was transcribed by a member of the Society of Antiquaries and circulated widely in manuscript form. The treatise showed the unbroken continuity of English law from before the Conquest and was only fully published in 1642. Its main purpose was to emphasise the sanctity of the law against false judges and even the King.  The Norman Conquest was therefore not seen to have violated the authority of English Law. The year before the publication of the treatise, a 14th century document called Modus Tenendi Parliamentum was also published and was supposed to describe the process of parliaments held under the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor. It therefore tried to legitimise parliament as having a continuity from a past that was not interrupted by the Norman Conquest.  Many of these documents originated before the 17th century, but the fact that they were only published during the Civil War era shows that interest in the relation of the Norman Conquest to English law peaked at this time

The implications of arguments based on the continuity or discontinuity of law after the Norman Conquest can be seen in debates on landownership. Feudal land tenure was often cited in legal arguments as being introduced by the Normans. The lawyer Sir Henry Spelman compiled a glossary which included a definition for feuds (tenurial) which cited they originated with the Norman Conquest.  In 1639 this view of the past was contested in a case on defective titles, put forward by the Judges of all Ireland. Laws and charters from the Anglo-Saxon era were used as evidence to suggest that feuds originated from before the conquest. Spelman’s reply to this, published posthumously in Reliquaie Spelmanniae, was that the term feud could have two definitions. He did not deny the existence of service in a general sense before William I, but suggested that after the Norman Conquest he brought in ‘the Servitudes and Grievances of Feuds, viz. Wardships, Marriage and such like, which, to this day were never known to other Nations that are governed by feudal law’. As a result of this debate, the Long Parliament called for an abolition of feudal tenures. This ‘abolition’ had questionable impact on the practicalities of landownership. Nevertheless, it shows the significance applied to the Norman Conquest and the legal weight its use could bring.

The Levellers and The Conquest

The Levellers, unlike more moderate parliamentarians, tended to stress that the Norman Conquest saw a break in the continuity of English Law. This narrative of the past suggested that William I and his successors had introduced new and oppressive laws and that there was no real legal continuity from the Anglo-Saxon past: what remained was a result of Norman force. A pamphlet by John Parr in 1649 stated that the Normans only retained ‘those Parts of former Laws which made for their own interest’.  The Levellers also believed that the English had struggled to regain their liberties at certain points in history, William Walwyn saw this in Magna Carta which he suggested had  won back some of the rights of the English back from the Norman Kings. However, this victory and its importance were greatly exaggerated for it was a ‘messe of pottage’.  Robert Overton, another Leveller, agreed calling the Magna Carta ‘a beggerly thing’. The discontinuity of English Law instigated by the Norman Conquest became a rallying point for the Levellers’ politics. This view of history was therefore critical of law which became a symbol of Norman rule, rather than what remained of Anglo-Saxon freedom.normanyoke3

The contrast of views between the Levellers and other Parliamentarians on law can be expressed through the fact that Parliament had been appealing to their own sovereignty whilst fighting the Civil War.  However, once the Levellers came to believe that Parliament had replaced the King as an unrepresentative authority, they proclaimed that the people were superior to law and Parliament. Therefore, the Levellers began to appeal to ‘natural rights’ theory, rather than appealing to the history of English Law. Following the defeat of Charles I in 1647, the different factions of the Parliamentary army discussed the future of the English constitution at The Putney Debates. This was necessary as Cromwell’s proposed settlement with Charles I was not seen as radical enough by the large number of officers that had been influenced by Leveller thinking.  The Leveller’s desire to extend the franchise to all adult males was refuted by Henry Ireton, a moderate and the son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, on the grounds that it breached the constitution. The Levellers’ insistence that the Norman Conquest had interrupted English Common Law, and that no real remnant of the Anglo-Saxon past existed, was used to bypass criticism that their views were unconstitutional.

However, R.B Seaberg has made the argument that the Levellers view of the past and the ‘Norman Yoke’ was more nuanced than this. Seaberg argues that the Levellers believed some level of English Common Law had survived beyond the Norman Conquest. The jury system was one of the institutions to survive, which John Liliburne placed in the ‘kalendar of Englishmens fundamental liberties’. The fact that the Levellers also believed that the English had regained partial liberties through Magna Carta and the Petition of Right of 1628 could also be used to suggest that they did not see 1066 as much of a watershed event as has previously been argued. Nevertheless, the Norman Conquest certainly formed a large part of Leveller argument and debate.

The Diggers and The Conquest

While the Levellers used the idea of a ‘Norman Yoke’ in criticism of their rivals, the ‘Diggers’ or ‘True Levellers’ used it as one of the ways through which they could convey their more radical ideas. Similar to the Levellers, they believed that Parliament was still a corruption of Norman rule, but they offered more radical egalitarian solutions. Gerard Winstanley, one of the founders of the movement, told Thomas Fairfax their aim was ‘not to remove the Norman Yoke only’ or restore English law, but to return to ‘the pure righteousnesse before the fall’. The Diggers did not believe Parliament could be relied upon to do this, as those who were ‘Parliament men, or law makers’ were ‘some very rich man, who is the Sucessor of the Norman Colonels’. Parliament was a continuation of Norman rule, which aimed ‘to beat them down again, when as they gather to seek for Liberty’. This view of the past was therefore shaped by dissatisfaction with the contemporary politics of moderate Parliamentarians, in particular, the fact that the revolution had not been radical enough.

The views of the Diggers are also expressed through the 1649 manifesto ‘The True Levellers Standard Advanced’. It states ‘Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords’ are ‘in the breach of the Seventh and Eight Commandments’. Instead, ‘the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury’. According to the Diggers, the English will not be a ‘Free People, till the Poor that have no land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons’. A recurring motif and rhetorical device in the manifesto is the plight of the English being compared to that of the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity. The Standard Advanced states  ‘the last enslaving Conquest which the Enemy got over Israel, was the Norman over England’ and that the Normans ‘still in pursuit of that victory’ are ‘Imprisoning, Robbing and killing the poor enslaved English Israelites’. The use of the Biblical tradition in the Standard Advanced is pivotal in understanding the Diggers’ construction of the past.  The legitimacy of their aims is dependent on the idea that removing the Normans and their legacy, would help in the restoration of England to a situation which is not only divinely ordained, but also more similar to that of Creation.  The ‘Norman Yoke’ almost acts as a metaphor for the Fall of Man. The manifesto argues that ‘one word was not spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another’ instead mankind  ‘was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made servants and Slaves:’ In the Standard Advanced, the Norman Conquest and the supposed changes in government and law following it, parallel mankind’s fall from the ‘Common Treasury’ through the introduction of ‘bondage’. The Diggers’ radical aims to alter the contemporary political situation are therefore legitimised through their construction of the past, which uses the ‘Norman Yoke’ myth as a means of explaining why mankind fell from God’s favour.

St Edward’s Ghostnormanyoke2

While many of these documents use the idea of a ‘Norman Yoke’ on legal or governance grounds, John Hare’s pamphlet ‘St Edward’s Ghost’ or ‘Anti-Normanisme’ (1647), is unique in that it has an ethnic and overtly patriotic dimension to its argument against the Normans. The first part of the essay is a largely fictive account of the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to England, but is pivotal for establishing Hare’s view of the past. Hare places importance on the descent of the English as ‘a member of the Teutonick Nation’, which is ‘a descent so honourable and happy’.  This is part of a process through which Hare ‘others’ the Normans, distinguishing them as a ‘people’ from the English. This is mostly made on ethnic grounds; the opposition of Edgar the Atheling following the Norman Conquest is described as ‘for his blouds sake, and in opposition to the Normane.’ However, Hare also considers language as a factor which distinguishes the English from the Normans. ‘Anti-Normanisme’ suggests that ‘our language be cleared of the Normane and French invasion upon it’. John Hare’s criticism of the Normans is therefore made by arguing how they are distinct from the English on cultural grounds and not just by law.

While the pamphlet is anti-Norman, it is also important not to lose sight that the document is also conveying a message that exalts the English as a ‘people’. This could be considered an alternative explanation for why the document takes cultural factors more into account than other contemporary writings. Hare is unsympathetic to not only the Normans, but also the Scots, Picts and Danes in the first part of the essay. Only the Romans are considered in a somewhat positive light. Furthermore, while detailing how the Gallicisms in the English language should be eliminated, Hare suggests that some words and terms could be replaced by ‘supplying it from old Saxon’. Therefore, Hare’s construction of the past is not just concerned with defaming the Normans and their ‘rule’ over England, but also with promoting the return to a supposed glorious and lost English past.


The myth of a ‘Norman Yoke’ did not end with the controversies of the English Civil War. Its traces can be identified in the writings of late 18th century liberals and republicans, such as Thomas Paine.  By the 19th century, the myth had become associated with Victorian anti-Catholicism and Romantic Nationalism, found in literature such as Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake and Scott’s Ivanhoe. However its use and controversy was at its height during the English Civil War. The Norman Conquest became a way to discuss contemporary legal and constitutional concerns, as different factions appropriated the past to support their own views. The way in which the Conquest and its consequences were used during the Civil War can remind the historian that views of the past are always contested and can often reflect contemporary concerns, more so than the time period itself.


Written by Liam Greenacre



Primary Sources:

The True Levellers Standard Advanced.’ Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers. 1649. https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/863. Accessed Aug 30, 2017.

‘St. Edwards ghost: or, Anti-Normanisme: being a patheticall complaint and motion in the behalfe of our English nation against her grand (yet neglected) grievance, Normanisme.’ John Hare. 1647. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A87109.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext. Accessed Aug 30, 2017.

Secondary Sources:

Chibnall, Marjorie. The Debate on the Norman Conquest. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Hill, Christopher. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

———. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th century. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958.

Jenkins, Hugh. “Shrugging off the Norman Yoke: Milton’s History of Britain and the Levellers.” English Literary Renaissance 29, no. 3 (1999): 306-25.

Seaberg, R. B. “The Norman Conquest and the Common Law: The Levellers and the Argument from Continuity.” The Historical Journal 24, no. 4 (2009): 791-806.