William the Conqueror

The defeated former king of England, Harold Godwinson, pledges loyalty to the new king, William the Conqueror (dressed in red).
Norman soldiers.
William the Conqueror.
Medieval helmets.

In 1066, an invading French army hailing from Normandy tried to conquer England. The English, quite naturally, responded by defending their country, and the situation soon resulted in a decisive battle at a place called Hastings in southern England.

At the Battle of Hastings, despite the English army arriving tired and decimated, it looked like the Englishmen would be able to hold out and repel the intruders. However, a French tactical maneuver of feigning retreat a bit into the fighting took them by surprise. Believing the battle was won when seeing enemy forces withdraw, the English soldiers abandoned their secure positions, and then, vulnerably exposed, were overpowered by a coordinated French attack. This attack had so many Englishmen die or flee in panic that it ultimately made the English leaders give up, landing French leader William on the English throne.

Crushing opposition and appointing judges

The new king, known in history as William the Conqueror, became deadly afraid of opposition to his rule after taking the reins of England. After all, he knew that many Englishmen despised him and wanted to see him gone, and as a precaution, he brutally crushed resistance and rebellions as soon as he caught wind of them. Moreover, the new king cunningly appointed Frenchmen to the highest positions in the English administrative system, a system that the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings before him had set up when uniting many small kingdoms into one state. This move by William to fill the administration with his own people meant that French would be spoken throughout much of the island of Great Britain in politics, in the courts and in the upper echelons of the English army.

French words become English words

Because many English kings and state appointees after William the Conqueror would also speak French as their mother tongue, many French words relating to the elite classes would find their way into the English language over the coming centuries. Words like finance, attorney and officer, for example, which are still used today, are all English words that originally come from French. The name Normans, which the French invaders themselves have come to be called, however, is not of French origin. This is because the region Normandy, where the Frenchmen came from, had got its name from Northmen, or Vikings, who settled there in the 9th and 10th centuries.