The Norman Legacy

By 1154, the Normans were disappearing. That year saw the death of Roger II, and although Norman rule would technically continue through Frederick II’s reign, it was the beginning of the long decline of Hauteville rule in Sicily. In that year the Norman line in England had also been supplanted. Stephen of Blois, the Conqueror’s grandson and the last full Norman king, had expired in 1154 and was succeeded by the first of the Angevin dynasty. Only in Bohemond’s principality of Antioch, did a direct Norman descendant of the founder still rule, but that state was a poor shadow of its former self.  

Norman Antioch was surrounded by hostile powers, and only managed to survive thanks to the disunity of its enemies. Bohemond’s descendants clung to power until 1268 when the invading Mongols brutally sacked the city, bringing the longest lasting crusader state to an end. The title, Prince of Antioch, continued to be claimed by Bohemond’s family in exile, but it was of decreasing value and usually granted to junior members of the family. Eventually the title was acquired by a Portuguese prince in 1456, and when he was poisoned by his own mother-in-law the next year, no one bothered to claim it.  

By then Norman rule was an anachronism, and the world itself was a vastly different place than that encountered by Rollo or William the Conqueror, or Robert Guiscard. Although they had not set out to do so, each of them had played a pivotal role in creating a new Europe.  

The Norman achievement is all the more astonishing considering how brief it was. The Normans held sway only for the two centuries between the tenth and the twelfth. Norman rule in Sicily bloomed for barely two generations, and then lingered for another four decades without the same vitality. In the East, the Norman decline was considerably quicker. Despite clinging to life for almost two centuries, the principality of Antioch only had two effective rulers, the last of whom, Tancred, died prematurely in 1112.  

Time diluted the restless energy of the Normans. They were always a minority in places that they ruled and were eventually absorbed by those they conquered. The Normans in England became English, and those in Sicily became Italian. Normandy itself was swallowed by France in 1204, and the native Normans disappeared into the surrounding population.  

But for two magnificent generations, they had the world at their fingertips. William the Conqueror, Robert Guiscard, and the great count Roger were all contemporaries as were their children William II of England, Bohemond of Antioch, and Roger II of Sicily. In each case an exceptional conqueror had been followed by an effective administrator who consolidated the gains and laid the foundations of a lasting state. In 1054 the three men who would become the most famous Normans were an illegitimate duke, a glorified pirate, and a penniless knight. A hundred years later their descendants ruled over the two most powerful and glittering courts of Europe, and the greatest of the Crusader states.  

There was also a more enduring and important change. The Norman centuries of dominance had seen a fundamental shift. No observer in the tenth century would have guessed that anything lasting would come out of Western Europe. It was surrounded by powerful Byzantine and Muslim neighbors, and fragmented into dozens of minor, decentralized states that incessantly squabbled and seemed incapable of unifying themselves. It was defensive and inward-looking, buffeted by Viking attacks from the north, Arab raids from the west, and Magyar invasions from the east. By the twelfth century that had changed. Europe was confident and expansive on all sides, beginning to roll back the Muslim conquest in both Spain60 and Asia Minor. In the place of weak feudal states were centralized kingdoms poised for the explosive growth which would eventually see it dominate the globe.  

The Normans are at the great tipping point of European history. It was their energy and daring that transformed Europe, their dynamism that was at the forefront of the new spirit of the Age. It’s not a coincidence that the First Crusade was led by Norman princes and fought by Norman knights. Nor that successive reforming popes were propped up by Norman arms, or that armies as far apart as Asia Minor and Spain had Norman mercenaries at their core.  

They are the great rags-to-riches story of the Middle Ages, a stark reminder of Virgil’s maxim that fortune favors the bold. Between Hannibal and Napoleon there were few greater adventurers.  

They demonstrate, if proof is needed, that exceptional individuals can change the course of history.  


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