What have the Normans ever done for us?- Using Medieval History to explain Brexit


It seems funny that a sketch from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ has anything to do with Brexit, but the whole argument for Britain leaving the EU seemed like the elaborate, ungrateful scene in the amphitheatre. The questions John Cleese, and the People’s Front of Judea, asked in this scene are still prominent now, so by answering them we can see why Britain’s position should be within the European Union.

But I am a medieval studies undergrad, so the question moves from Romans, to Europe and then into the context I am more familiar with- the Normans. The Norman Conquest of England reshaped the relationship between England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France. It brought the countries into direct action against each other through dynastic and border struggles in areas which England had little interest before, like the Vexin and Maine. But most importantly trade flourished under the Normans and subsequent Angevin kings.

Suddenly the western coast of France and Antwerp were open for trade. These zones complimented each other and increased the amount of special, high value goods which were traded. Merchants from England were able to thrive off of the sea-borne commerce, concluding in more crown revenues from taxes. What is more, these merchants gave more to institutions like the church, which in turn funded the beautiful, extravagant monasteries which are a symbol of our medieval past. Coastal towns like Dunwich, Dover and Bristol were enlarged through the amount of trade and commerce which directly had to go through their streets, this meant better houses to accommodate all of the tradesmen and workers. The Anglo-Saxon burghs and wics ballooned due to the increase in trade. The immediate increase in trade which was as a result of the Norman Conquest therefore benefitted both the new settlers and the native population.

This system is now paralleled in the modern trading zone which was created by the EU. The free trade bloc that the Customs Union gives Britain is vital for trade. Yet, not only was this never really discussed during the televised debates, people still underestimate the impact of not having this free trade with Europe. Just like in 1150, European trade is the largest trading bloc which we work with. The freedom of movement allows businessmen from France, Germany and the Netherlands start-up businesses in Britain which would create, not destroy, jobs. These Europeans are not aiming to destroy or commercialise Britain into a little Europe, they are here to work, which means we get the benefits of specialised goods. So the first answer you can give to the overall question is, the Normans started a system of trade with the rest of Europe, which is not only set the precedent for modern trade but is still vital for Britain.

This trade is not limited to purely commercial products. The free movement in the medieval era enabled the trade of thought to flourish also. The Normans brought new building techniques, a new style of warfare and a more institutionalised church system which integrated English monasteries to their mother houses in France and Italy. During the Twelfth Century Europe underwent a short renaissance, which improved learning and art, all of which would not have travelled to England if it was not for the freedom of movement the French monks used. (There is a huge debate about how dependant England was on France in this era with Richard Southern deeming that England was totally dependent on France, which seems most likely in terms of trade.)

England did give back to the Normans. John Gillingham who wrote on the Angevin Empire states that the ‘Long-term consequences of the Norman Conquest had been the introduction of an English administrative practice on the Duchy.’ This unique administrative system was set-up by Alfred the Great, therefore quintessentially English. Twinned with common trading benefits, it is clear that England and the French states mutually benefitted from free movement and a common identity.

How is this relevant now? Well Europeans are better manufacturers and producers of high-valued goods than we are. Britain to some extent does depend on specialised mechanics from Germany and France. There are other products and expert knowledge that we rely on from Europe, but there is some things we do give back. Our intelligence service is one of the best in the world, or so they say. It has been keeping Europe in check and safe since we entered forty years ago. What is more our banks are used by an array of different European tycoons, businessmen and others. The benefits are symbiotic.

The free movement of people and ideas within the medieval era then resembles what the EU has offered and enabled Britain to do for decades. Britain also benefits from greater, free trade with other European countries, just like separate British states did within the early Middles Ages. There is one main difference that Brexiteers forget, we are not ruled by the EU. They have not taken away any of sovereignty and aim not to break down our nation, but aim to better it. England was taken over by the Normans who were then succeeded by the Angevins, therefore had little choice but to reap the benefits of Europe. The European Union therefore is not a conspiracy to take over Britain but to better the lives of the nations which are included within it. And to answer what the Normans ever did for us, the simple answer is that they included the British Isles in the powerful and beneficial network of trade and free movement that an isolated island nation might not have ever joined.


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