It could be said that the English and the French do not get on together as well as they should. It is not unusual in this world for neighbours to be critical of each other – and this may be part of the story – but the centuries-long, cross-channel sniping has a certain strangeness about it.
Cultural misunderstanding usually arises either on account of differences in communication style or, weightier still, basic values. The French manner of speech is more extrovert than that of the English. Not only do they use four times as many words, but they gesticulate with hands and arms, shrug mightily, pout and perorate; most of the time they talk down their nose. These mannerisms irritate the English, whose stiff-upper-lip facial mask and folded arms annoy the French with their opaque aloofness.
Interestingly, when we come to values, we find that French and English core beliefs are almost identical. Reaction to world crises or other significant events are strikingly similar. This is not as strange as it might seem. The two peoples have long shared a plethora of convictions and experience. Both were former superpowers with far-flung colonies and empire, adventurous explorers on land and at sea, champions of the Christian religion, science and the arts, bastions of freedom and latterly, democracy, prominent in military history and allies in two world wars. The common heritage is as evident as it is compelling.
Why, then, this persistent friction? Is one side more to blame than the other? As a native of the North of England (dangerously close to Scotland), I tend to sympathise with the French. People who hail from either side of the Pennines often view their southern compatriots as virtual foreigners – at best tweedy and posh, at worst smug, snobbish and patronising. No wonder the French find them cold, opaque and illogical. Not renowned for their patience, our Gallic friends often dismiss the English as insular, impenetrable eccentrics who rarely can be relied upon (‘perfidious Albion’) and drive on the wrong side of the road.
Yet the English seem more scornfully dismissive of the French, especially the males. The caricature is disparaging: the dangling Gauloise, the wine-soaked moustache, the stupid beret, the theatrical, whining eater of raw garlic and frogs’ legs. Not very flattering. How poorly this compares with the (somewhat misty) image of the heroic Anglo-Saxons of the past – narrowly defeated at Hastings but perpetuating, through the centuries that followed, indomitable English traditions of honest toil, wholesomeness and ultimate invulnerability.
The Norman Invasion of 1066 was the last the English had to suffer (England had a history of constant occupation – Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Danes). But just what did we suffer? What did we lose or gain?
The arrows had barely stopped flying at Hastings when William the Conqueror embarked on an ambitious construction programme. His specialities were cathedrals and castles, built mainly with French stone imported from quarries across the Channel. The magnificent cathedral edifices of Winchester, Canterbury, Durham and Norwich were speedily erected to match, in their Gothic splendour, their cousins in Chartres, Rouen and Amiens. Imposing castles were built in Windsor, Arundel and Colchester as well as further north in Harlech, Caenarvon, Conway and Newcastle. More than 50 forts were constructed before William’s death in 1087. More than 1,200 religious foundations were established the length and breadth of the land, where Cistercian, Carthusian and Benedictine monks employed thousands of Saxon workers, to whom they introduced sheep and the wool trade, which propelled English country life and prosperity for nearly a thousand years.
The Normans were not interested in settling the land as the Saxons and many Vikings had done. They came to England to rule it. It was largely an upper-class affair – the 10,000 men who followed William represented only 1% of the population but they were la crème de la crème. Among them were 5000 mounted cavaliers. The invention of the stirrup produced cavalry, then knights and the (French) concept of chivalry (rooted in the world of the cheval). William’s followers became bishops, barons, knights and grandees. Thus was born the English aristocracy and class system with its connotations of respect for property, land ownership and law. The subsequent Kings of England had French blood – the only dyed-in-the-wool English ruler since 1066 has been Oliver Cromwell.
Though place names have remained largely Saxon or Scandinavian, people’s names show Norman influence, particularly in the upper and middle class families – the De Veres, Montforts, Mortimers, Mowbrays, Lacys, De Mandevilles, De Villiers. The working classes also changed their names to Norman versions. Ethelred, Godwin, Alfred, Wulfstan and Godric became William, Robert, Roger and Geoffrey. When surnames came into vogue at the end of the 15th century, most of them were Norman in choice. Even today football fans worship Gascoigne, Neville, Venables, Sinclair, Terry, Lampard, not to mention obvious ones such as Le Saux and Le Tissier.
The most pervasive element of the Norman invasion was that of language. While we retained such mundane Saxon and Viking words as houses, homes, ships, souls, sea, sky, cows, sheep, calves and swine, the Normans brought in vocabulary redolent of a more elegant, civilized way of life, with romance, beauty, courtesy, palaces, savoir faire, tête-à-tête, élite, encore, panache, coup d’état, fait accompli, dénouement, en route, milieu, par excellence, banquet, buffet, bon-vivant, gaffe, débacle, débris, à la mode, chauffeur, pied-à-terre, rendez-vous, joie de vivre, au revoir, débutante, entrepreneur, entrée, camaraderie, nouveau riche, esprit de corps, maitresse, déjà-vu, bidet, boudoir and raison d’être. In culinary matters they swamped us with haute cuisine, maître d’hotel, dessert, soup, sauce, sausage and much more.
There are about 10,000 words of French origin in the English dictionary. To say they enrich our language (including that of Chaucer and Shakespeare) is something of an understatement. Cross-channel loan words going the other way are a poor recompense. Le building, le meeting, le businessman, le shopping, le jogging demean French rather than enhance it.
By the reign of Henry II, the English nation had a fulsome Norman legacy in the political, military, religious, commercial and administrative spheres. The Normans also gave us our gardens, vineyards, hunting on horseback. They can be seen as the bringers of civilization, especially among fans of the Gothic. “England still laments the coming of William the Conqueror,” wrote Thomas Carlyle,” but without him, consider what had we ever been?”
With one thousand years of inter-marriage on these islands, who is English and who is Norman? The Norman invasion of England was the last one; it was certainly the most benign. “Our island story,” wrote Robert Winder, “a convulsive saga of class animosity and inequality, would be shaped forever by this superior elite.”
I live in the Meon Valley of Hampshire where the farmers look out over the Channel and go on about ‘them’ and ‘us’, repeating a centuries-old national myth. But what if ‘we’ are ‘them’ and moreover, the better for it?
Long Live the Anglo-Norman Kingdom.