The coming of the Normans is the most important fact in English history. For a thousand years the history of our country is more or less obscure – we are always trying to look behind the veil and see what was happening. But when the Normans came, the veil was torn away forever. England stands revealed to all who wish to see it, and we can now follow every detail in the growth of our state, as well as in the growth of our town.
The Normans came to England in 1066. A thousand years after the Romans first came. Over 1000 years have passed since William I landed and won his great victory over the Saxons at Hastings, so that each of these periods covers more or less 1000 years. In this second thousand years, England was made; the British Empire was founded; and the half savage country the Romans left became the greatest civilized power the world, either ancient or modern, has ever seen.
The Normans were Frenchmen from Normandy. They conquered the Saxons, who, as we have seen, were of German origin. In time, they blended together and became one people. Thus, an Englishman, if we go back to his origin, may be said to be part German and part French, with a mixture of British and Danish, and, perhaps a very slight infusion of Roman, for it is very likely that many Roman soldiers, magistrates, traders and other followers, married British women or founded families in the 350 years of the Roman occupation.
Thus, our language is very curious, yet wonderfully blended speech. If the reader wishes to see this for himself, let him take any twenty words out of a book then look at a dictionary. He will find that 5 or 6 of them, or even more, are Anglo-Saxon; some of them will be Norman, which means French, an odd 1 or 2 may be Danish; and the rest will be Latin (Roman) or Greek.
The Normans were a masterful people. They conquered England and they subjugated it – that is to say, they took complete posession of the land, the revenues, the taxes, the churches, and so on; they made new laws and institutions; they parcelled the country out among the great barons who had come with William and helped him win the day at Hastings. Thus we find many great families with distinctive Norman names, like the Fitzwilliams of this district, boasting, and rightly too, that their ancestors “came over with the conqueror”.
The Normans were very soon at Doncaster. The Saxons were turned out of their posessions and proud Normans were installed. Sir Walter Scott’s romance of Ivanhoe is one of the most stirring stories of the days of the Normans – when they lived in great castles, when they held jousts and tournaments, when they almost savagely oppressed the Saxons, and when monk and pilgrim, Knight and squire, robber and palmer were the picturesque figures of daily life. Well, Ivanhoe begins at Conisborough. Sir Walter Scott came to Sprotborough, midway between Doncaster and Conisborough, to study the castle and the country around it; and he laid the opening scene of his immortal romance in the vale of the Don and in the great castellated pile which overlooks the river, and is the crowning glory of the Norman story as applied to Doncaster.
For we have this admission to make – Doncaster town centre is poor in Roman remains. We have not a single Norman church or building in the town. Everything has been swept away. But in every village around Doncaster relics abound. At Conisborough we have the castle. At Tickhill there is a castle still with the moat around it. At Roche Abbey we have the ruins of one of the most beautiful monastic buildings in Yorkshire. And finally, we have, within a few miles of Doncaster, some of the stateliest churches in the whole of the land. Tickhill church is noble enough for a minster; so is Hatfield; at Campsall, Burghwallis, Wadworth, Fishlake, Sprotbrough, Kirk Sandall, Barnbrough and a dozen other places, the Normans reared massive churches of solid masonry, with handsome square towers; and in these churches there are to be seen monuments, sculptures, carvings, screens all bearing the impress of the clever and reverent hands of the monkish builders. Fishlake has one of the most beautiful Norman porches in England; Sprotbrough has a ‘Frith Stool’ which is claimed to be one of the few existing seats in use in that far off period when criminals sought sanctuary in their parish churches.
So that even if Doncaster Centre is without its Norman church, even if we have no battlemented pile to frown over our streets and remind us of the imperious baron who held the people in serfdom for his master William, we strike a balance by claiming that the valley of the Don, and thence on to Selby, contains a host of churches which for beauty, dignity and massive simplicity will be hard to beat in any other part of the country.
One of the first acts of the Norman conquerors was to compile Doomsday (or Domesday) Book – a sort of survey of the whole country, shewing the towns and villages, churches and halls, mills and weirs, fisheries and forests, and so forth, with their value, their revenue, their owners, and other details. This is the first book we turn to when we want actual information of the England that William conquered.
Doncaster is mentioned in Domesday Book – not as a town in itself, but as part of the ‘soke’ of Hexthorpe, or Easthope, meaning ‘East Village’. It is curious that today, Doncaster is a bustling modern town with a Mayor and Council many hundred years old, while Hexthorpe is just a suburb drawn into the borough. Yet in Saxon days and early Norman days, it was Hexthorpe that was the centre and Doncaster that was near to it. There can be no doubt about this from the reading of the Domesday Book. There is a reference to the ‘Manor of Hexthorpe’ and then follows the remark that ‘ to this manor belongs the soccage (sokeage) of the men of Danecastre’, implying, surely, that Doncaster was a mere part of the vast domain belonging to its Saxon owner. Still, there is no doubt that of the two, Doncaster was the more important place – with Saxon earthworks, a ditch or moat, certainly a church and mill, and probably even a castle.
After William I had conquered the land, he divided it up among his principal barons. He gave Doncaster and a great tract of the surrounding country to his half-brother, Robert, Earl of Moreton, and so we enter on a new era – when the Norman baron lived in the moated castle, when armed men rode with him when he fared forth, and when Saxon noble was despoiled of his rights and his possessions, and Saxon serf was the slave of his proud master.
We learn a great deal about Doncaster from the Domesday Book. Other adjoining towns and villages, still existing which find mention in that record are:
- Barnby Dun
- Dadesby (Tickhill)
- Hooton Pagnell
- Melton-on-the-hill and West Melton