“Nancy Boys and Reluctant Warriors… with Combed, Anointed Hair”: Hair and Masculinity before and after the Norman Conquest*

*Or how a short-back-and-sides might have changed the course of history.


According to William of Poitiers, Harold Godwin’s army ‘[yielded] nothing to the beauty of girls.’[1] His near-contemporary, Guy of Amiens, stuck the boot in further, describing the defeated Anglo Saxons as ‘nancy-boys’ and ‘reluctant warriors’, with ‘combed, anointed hair.’[2] It might not come as much of a surprise to imagine that in their narrative-defining and history-making literature, the Normans were not gracious winners, keen to make playground style digs.

Yet linking the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons with their long hair styles, a very visual contrast to their closely-cropped Norman counterparts, is far more than rubbing salt into the cultural wound. The implication that the long hair favoured by Harold’s army meant effeminacy would have far-reaching cultural implications in the interpretation and construction of success and defeat, national identity and engendered understandings. In both Norman and Anglo-Saxon narratives, a short-back-and-sides might have made all the fighting difference.

As my brilliant colleague Alyx Mattison has written in the previous blog, for an Anglo-Saxon male, his appearance of respectability, his spiritual commitment and his reproductive prowess were bound up with his having a full head of hair. While tenth-century writer Aelfric wrote of a widow carefully trimming the [long] hair of a mutilated St Edmund from his tomb, to be kept as a relic and venerated, across the Channel a very different conception of hair and masculinity was forming, or rather, being styled.[3]

As soldiers ‘of unconquered valour’ (William of Poitiers) who ‘strive to rule… in all communities, wherever they may be’ (Orderic Vitalis), the Norman reputation was primarily that of the fierce and feared warrior people.[4] Their identity as true men, however, was based more than on fighting prowess. Norman masculinity was that of militarism and Christianity, reflecting the holy machismo of a female-free, celibate and self-controlled Gregorian reform.

Favoured so greatly by Pope Alexander II and backed by the Archbishop Hildebrand, the future Pope Gregory VII, William I, on the eve of the battle for the English crown, received a banner of papal blessing, ‘to signify the approval of St Peter’ (William of Poitiers).[5] Their links with the grass-roots reform trickling up through Europe would mean that the Normans strove to emulate the men who embodied the Gregorian ideal. In order to assert the most self-disciplined interior, free from temptation and pure in Christian spirit, they wore their hair cropped, and shaved off their beards.

The physical manifestation of the ideal that the celibate and stoic were real men, and real men had short hair, would not be lost of William and his army. William of Malmsebury would later write that an English scout said, on first glimpsing the invading Normans, ‘almost everyman in William’s army seemed to be a priest.’[6] The Bayeux Tapestry confirms their clean-shaven image, in contrast to their opponents’ beards.

The Normans modelling a close-crop

The Normans modelling a close-crop

The narrative of the Norman Conquest over the Anglo Saxons in the years after 1066 was formed by enthusiastic writers who were keen to establish an indisputable history with the issue of masculinity, and it’s physical proponent the hair style, at its heart. In his romanticized account, Baudri of Bourgueil undermines the Anglo Saxons as both ‘a very unwarlike people’ or gens, and ‘a womanly type’ or genus.[7]

While resistance would fail, not all Anglo Saxons would take this emasculating kicking so easily. In portraying the defeated resistance hero Hereward the Wake, his militarism and masculinity are framed within the traditional virility of Beowulf and AElfric’s St Edmund. ‘Reckoned the most distinguished of all – a notable warrior among the most notable’, Hereward not only embarrassingly outwits the Normans and their slapstick efforts at combat, but does so, as a Norman bully jokingly points out, with long hair.[8] He becomes, through the Gesta Herwardi, an intellectual act of resistance to Norman ideals as much as he was ever a physical resistor in battle.

But the wounds of defeatism and emasculation were, for the Anglo Saxons, both severely tied together and very deep. In light of the new ‘type’ of masculinity and the foreigners’ success, Anglo Saxon narratives began to challenge what they had believed before, using hair as the symbol of both. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, several years after the Conquest, is written to have had, before 1066, a prophetic realization that if the English ‘would grow their hair like women… [they] would be defeated like women.’[9]

For the second generation of Normans in England, however, the ultra-masculinity and military prowess of their fathers would be harder to replicate. The degeneration of William II’s court, in contrast to the former king’s, would manifest itself, to William of Malmesbury, in the court’s ‘long flowing hair’ and ‘luxurious garments’, demonstrative of a ‘softness of the body rivaling the weaker sex.’[10] With the added whisper of homosexuality and a lack of an heir, this (Anglo-)Norman court looked increasingly feminine and weak, implying immorality and decadence and appearing crucially, un-Norman.

So it is interesting to note that when his brother, the future king Henry I, was about to enter conflict with his brother the Duke of Normandy, he and his army prepared for it in a way now unsurprisingly related to their appearance. Having his, and his courts’, heads shorn, he was able to take the moral (and masculine) high ground, taking his bishop’s advice that ‘All of you wear your hair in women’s fashion, which is not seemly for you who are made in the image of God and ought to use your strength like men’ (Orderic Vitalis).[11]

It would be this physical assertion of the masculinity of his father that manifested the same legendary military skill and Christian virtue. The correct spirituality and the favoured military action was completely tied up in the length and appearance of hair, as a visual proponent of interior and controlled masculinity. Wearing hair closely cropped, stark and plain, was, for the Normans, a truly manly and Christian demonstration of discipline. For them, they believed a short-back-and-sides really did make all the difference.


Liz Goodwin is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield


[1] William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, trans. M. Chibnall and R. H. C. Davis (Oxford, 1998), p. 181.

[2] Guy of Amiens, The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy, Bishop of Amiens, trans. F. Barlow (Oxford, 1999), pp. 20-1.

[3] Abbo of Fleury, Life of St. Edmund, trans. K. Cutler (Oxford, 1961), http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/870abbo-edmund.html.

[4] William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, trans. M. Chibnall and R. H. C. Davis (Oxford, 1998), p. 129, Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, trans. M Chibnall (Oxford, 1969), V.25.

[5] William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, trans. M. Chibnall and R. H. C. Davis (Oxford, 1998), pp. 104-5.

[6] K. A. Fenton, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the Works of William of Malmesbury (Suffolk, 2008), p. 121.

[7] Hugh Thomas, The English and the Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation, and Identity, 1066-c.1220 (Oxford, 2003), p. 247.

[8] Hereward the Wake, trans. M. Swanton, in S. Knight and T. Ohlgren (eds), Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hereward-the-wake.

[9] P. Stafford, ‘The Meanings of Hair in the Anglo-Norman Word: Masculinity, Reform, and National Identity’, in M. van Dijk and R. I. A. Nip (eds), Saints, Scholars, and Politicians: Gender as a Tool in Medieval Studies (Turnhout, 2005), p. 154.

[10] K. A. Fenton, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the Works of William of Malmesbury (Suffolk, 2008), pp. 67-8. See also discussion in R. Bartlett, ‘Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4 (1994), p. 51.

[11] Orderic Vitalis translated in W. Hollister, ‘Courtly Culture and Courtly Style in the Anglo-Norman World’, Albion 20 (1988), p. 10.


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