The Normans in Greece

The Normans had established themselves in Southern Italy and Sicily since 1027. In 1081 Robert Guiscard crossed the Adriatic, captured Corfu and laid siege to the Albanian port of Durazzo. Despite the defeat of his fleet Robert maintained the siege over the winter until Alexius arrived with a relief army. At the Battle of Durazzo 1082 a second charge (after effective crossbow fire) by Norman cavalry destroyed Alexius's Varangian Guard which included Anglo-Saxon axemen who had left Britain following the Norman conquest 3. As at Hastings it was the premature advance of these troops which contributed to the defeat. Robert's son Bohemund advanced to the Vardar river but was repulsed at Larissa by Alexius. With the death of his father in 1085 Bohemund returned to Italy.

After a period of crusading activity in Syria Bohemond returned to attack Durazzo in 1106. However, Alexius had prepared a large fleet to counter him. Blockaded in his siege lines Bohemond was forced into a humiliating peace treaty. He died in 1108.

War broke out again in the early 12th Century with clashes from Sicily to North Africa. Between 1146-49 the Norman fleet commanded by George of Antioch captured Corfu and sacked Athens Thebes and Corinth. He even brought his fleet to Constantinople in 1149. In 1155 the Byzantines took the war to Italy before being defeated at Brindis in 1156.

William II launched a new Norman invasion in 1185 capturing Durazzo and Thessalonika. His advance on Constantinople was halted by Emperor Isaac II Angelus at the Battle of the Strymon in September 1185. This effectively ended the Norman attempts on the Byzantine Empire.

Whilst due credit for Norman success has to be given to their mailed knights 4 it was the combination of knights and crossbowmen which were responsible for land victories. Most warfare revolved around sieges and in this form of warfare the Norman fleets were vital. Horse transports were particularly useful enabling the Normans to deliver battle winning troops to key points by sea.

In retrospect, William's rule can be seen as harsh, but in some ways just. The king was determined to stay in firm control, and he certainly brought a new degree of political unity to England. Those huge, forbidding Norman castles which even today, in ruin, dominate the skyline of so many towns and cities had the effect of maintaining law and order. Even a Saxon scribe wrote that "a man might walk through the land unmolested," and compared to the lawlessness and abuses which were apparent in the reign of his successor William II, the Conqueror's reign was almost a golden age. Trouble came immediately upon his death.