Friday, 5 December 2014

A statute of Henry III repealed - after 247 years

I've had my attention drawn to a fascinating post on the BBC website. The Statute of Marlborough  dating from is to have all but four of its clauses repealed - after a mere year-247-year-old-gap. I'm glad they didn't rush this clearly very important change

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Charles I: problems with parliaments (1625-9)

Charles’s inheritance

Charles as he liked to be portrayed,
by Anthony Van Dyck
His inheritance was complex and potentially problematic. It included:

  1. Multiple monarchies: the fact that he was king of three kingdoms (England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland)
  2. Financial problems: the inability of the Crown to make ends meet
  3. The growth of religious dissent:  Charles was the first monarch to be brought up in the Church of England. His reign saw rise of Arminianism, a theology that originated in Holland, which was a reaction to the extremes of Calvinism. In England this also entailed the bringing in of more ‘high church’ practice into Anglican services
  4. Charles exacerbated these potential problems when at the beginning of his reign he married the Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France. When she refused to attend Charles’s coronation in 1626 she became the first consort in English history to dissociate herself from the ceremony.

Henrietta Maria of France,
Charles' Catholic wife

James VI and I

James I in his coronation robes
by Daniel Mytens

James had been King of Scots (James VI) since his mother’s abdication in 1567. He became King of England in 1603.  He was a foreigner, but otherwise he had many positives. He was an adult male and England had not had an adult male ruler since 1547. He had three children, two of them boys. He had successfully governed Scotland.

His reign is important in British history for three reasons:
He was the first joint ruler of both England and Scotland and would have created a united country if the respective parliaments of the two kingdoms had permitted it. See here for what happened when he tried to achieve union.
His reign saw the plantation of Ulster with English and Scottish settlers, superimposed on a native Irish Catholic population.
His reign saw the foundations of the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts.
Seal of the London Virginia Company.
Note James's title as King of 'Great Britain'.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Elizabeth I and her Parliaments

Elizabeth is here presented as the true heir of Henry VIII. Her reign
ushers in peace and plenty, whereas Philip and Mary had
brought only war.
What was the situation of Parliament at Elizabeth’s accession? See here for a full account.

Historians know more about the Elizabethan parliament than its predecessors, largely because of the Journals of the two Houses. From 1510 the House of Lords kept a record of its proceedings and from 1547 the Commons kept its own Journal. By Elizabeth’s reign these records had become very full and in the seventeenth century the antiquarian Sir Simons D’Ewes collected copies of speeches and notes of debates.

St Stephen's Chapel, where the Commons
sat from 1547 to 1834
By Elizabeth’s reign, too, the Commons had a permanent chamber. In 1547 they moved into St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, where they continued to sit until the great fire of 1834.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Edward VI and Mary

Edward VI (1547-53)

Henry VIII's death and the accession of his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, ushered in some of the most momentous changes in English history. Power now lay firmly with the religious reformers (‘evangelicals’), who, through Parliament ushered in a religious revolution.  
"Portrait of Edward VI of England"
by Circle of William Scrots (fl. 1537–1554) -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

The coming of the Protectorate

On 31 January the Regency Council heard Henry VIII’s will read, naming the king’s uncle, the earl of Hertford Protector and governor of Edward’s person, who a few days later became duke of Somerset.  On 16 February Henry was buried at Windsor in the same tomb as Jane Seymour. On 20 February Edward was crowned. The coronation sermon was preached by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, now free to declare his religious sympathies, who told the king that if he wished to be the second King Josiah, he must destroy the pope’s tyranny and remove images. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'Henry VIII clauses'

I have been given a fascinating modern take on one of the most notorious statutes passed in Henry VIII’s reign.

In 1539 his Parliament, no doubt at Cromwell’s instigation, passed the Act of Proclamations, which appeared to give royal proclamations the force of law. 

Today the official Parliament site gives a fairly neutral definition and links the term to the Statute of Proclamations 1539.

The term 'Henry VIII Clause' is apparently always used in negative contexts, usually for when ministers attempt to obtain powers beyond those which are seen to be necessary.  For a typical view see hereSo although the Act was repealed at the King’s death in 1547, its spirit lives on - if we let it!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Henry VIII (2)

With the promotion of Thomas Cromwell to the inner council at the end of 1531, the parliamentary session of 1532 saw fresh moves  against the Church.
"Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01" by Hans Holbein the Younger -
The Frick Collection.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

The Reformation Parliament 1532

The Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates: In March 1532 the Lords debated the Bill of Annates, marking the first serious attack on the papal power in England.  Hitherto the pope had received the ‘Annates’ that is, revenues of a diocese for one year after the appointment of a new bishop, abbot, or prior. By the terms of the act he would in future only receive five per cent and if, as a result, he refused to consecrate a bishop, then the consecration would take place without papal consent. 

Parliament’s reaction showed that it was not completely submissive to the King. The Lords opposed the bill fiercely, and the King conceded the addition of a clause that suspended the effect of the act until confirmed by royal letters patent (hence ‘conditional’). Even so, the bill met strenuous resistance, which called for Henry’s repeated attendance in the Lords. 

In the final division on 19 March, the spiritual peers voted solidly against it. Even in the Commons, the government faced problems. This shows, not that members were desperate for the pope to continue to receive Annates, but that there was real concern about a full-frontal attack on the spiritual prerogatives of Rome. Parliament felt the king was using it for his own purposes.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Henry VIII (1)

"Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger -
Portrait of Henry VIII -
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons -
The reign of Henry VIII saw a huge increase in the importance of parliament. This was because of the king’s decision to use parliamentary statute in order to bring about the break with Rome.  Henry’s failure to produce a male heir before 1537 also raised two further issues: 

  1. in default of males, could a female succeed to the throne?
  2. who decided the succession – king or parliament?

"Catherine aragon" by Lucas Hornebolte -
(reproduced from collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry KT).
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
Henry's Spanish-born wife, Katherine of Aragon had come to England in 1501 to marry his elder brother, Arthur. However, Arthur died suddenly after six months. It was not clear whether the marriage had been consummated. In December 1503 Pope Julius II issued a Bull of Dispensation allowing Henry to marry his brother's widow. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

King and parliament: the early sixteenth century

I have used the following books for these and other posts relating to the Tudors:
G. R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 1960)
John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Rosemary O’Day (ed.), The Longman Companion to the Tudor Age (Longman, 1995)
This depiction of Elizabeth I and her
parliaments shows Lords and
Commons in front of the

The nature of kingship

The dynastic troubles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had led to three depositions and four murders, but had not altered the potential power of the Crown.  The age was essentially monarchical and the king was held to be the centre of all political and social life. The Tudor monarchs employed new styles and placed a greater distance between themselves and their subjects. From the time of Henry VII the still continued to be referred to as ‘your grace’ or ‘your highness’, but increasingly the title ‘your majesty’ was used. As the sixteenth century progressed there was growing stress on the divinely ordained duty to obey the monarch.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The fifteenth century

Bastard feudalism

By the fifteenth century the feudalism introduced by the Conqueror was dead.  The idea that all land belonged to the king who then leased parcels to tenants-in-chief in return for military service was over. Instead the former tenants were now in full possession of their land and the Norman practice of primogeniture meant that this land could not be alienated. See here for the legal background. 

The result was the build-up of great estates and castles in the hands of a few magnates. These nobles built up a body of retainers from the country gentry who turned to them for protection and frequently wore their livery badges as signs of their allegiance. This system came to be known as livery and maintenance or 'bastard feudalism'

 Under these circumstances a strong queen could also be a powerful player by virtue of the estates she was granted on her marriage. This helps to explain the vital role played in the politics of the period by Henry VI's French wife, Margaret of Anjou.
 "MargaretAnjou" by Talbot Master (fl. in Rouen, c. 1430–60)
 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
Because Parliament was often packed with the supporters of the great lords, it was less assertive than it had been in the preceding century. If these lords supported whoever happened to be king, then parliament did as well. In 1461 it obediently acceded to Edward IV’s demand to attaint the former queen, Margaret of Anjou, and her son, Edward Prince of Wales. In 1483 it obediently declared Edward IV’s children illegitimate, and then re-legitimised them two years on the command of Henry VII.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The fourteenth century

Helen Castor, She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth (Faber and Faber)
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown. A History of Britain in the late Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 2006)
Tidemann, Lauren, ‘For the Glory of England: The Changing Nature of Kingship on Fourteenth-Century England’, Sententiae: The Harvard Undergraduate Journal of Medieval Studies (2011)[This can be viewed here.]

The fourteenth century saw the deposition of two monarchs, the Black Death that killed a third of the population, a war with France, and a popular revolt. Parliament became more assertive and activist. It met more frequently than in the thirteenth or the fifteenth centuries and the length of the sessions increased.

Edward II (1307-27)

"Edward II - British Library Royal 20 A ii f10 (detail)"
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Edward’s reign was one of the most troubled in English history. It was a time of natural disaster, with a series of bad harvests leading to the Great Famine of 1315-22, in which between 10 and 15 per cent of the population died, and northern England was plagued by invasions from Scotland. But many of Edward’s troubles were of his own making.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The traitor's death

Those of you with a strong stomach might like to read the earliest known account of a traitor's death. The post is by Marc Morris, the author of the excellent biography of Edward I, A Great and Terrible King.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The British dimension: Scotland

The Wallace Monument, Stirling
an example of 19th-century nationalism

An independent kingdom

Unlike Wales, Scotland was not a single ethnic group. In the south-east the population was mainly of English stock, a relic of the once extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. In the west, however the natives were of Irish or Norwegian descent.  But though Scotland was a cultural and ethnic melting pot, it was united politically under its kings, in part because the Scottish

Replica of the Stone of Scone
monarchy had adopted primogeniture. The kings claimed descent from Scota, daughter of Pharaoh of Egypt, and they were crowned at Scone Abbey over an ancient stone. After 1066, when the Normans moved north, they were absorbed with relative ease into the existing society, drawing Scotland into mainstream European culture. A typical Scottish-Norman surname was Bruce, derived from Brix in Normandy. In addition, like England, Scotland had towns (burghs) and abbeys and priories on the continental model and its regions were characteristically cast as ‘shires’ along English lines.

The British dimension: Wales

Books I've consulted for this and the post about Scotland:

David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)

Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (London: Windmill Books, 2009)
Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain the Late Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 2006)

"Caernarfon castle interior".
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons


Wales was culturally strange to the English. Even at the highest levels the inhabitants spoke Welsh and this made them incomprehensible to the French-speaking English aristocracy. Even more importantly, the Welsh had different inheritance rules from the English, ‘partible’ inheritance rather than primogeniture. This was the main reason why there was no single political authority in Wales.  Rather than a recognisable nation-state it was a complex pattern of petty lordships.

Following his Conquest of England William the Conqueror established earldoms along the Welsh marches at Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. All these earls encroached into Welsh territory and gave Norman names to the lands they conquered. By 1200 the marchlands included part of Flintshire and Montgomeryshire, most of Radnorshire, Breconshire and Glamorgan, most of Monmouthshire, the southern part of Carmarthenshire and virtually the whole of Pembroke. These lordships were anomalous, neither Welsh nor English and very much a law unto themselves.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The origins of Parliament

Simon de Montfort
window of Chartres Cathedral
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

These are the books I've consulted:
David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (London: Windmill Books, 2009)
Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Robin Shepherd, Westminster a Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

David Carpenter argues (p. 491) that 

‘Magna Carta ‘constituted a watershed between different styles of government, making it much harder for the king to treat individuals in an arbitrary fashion, especially when it come to taking their money’. 

Henry III (1216-72)

During Henry’s childhood, and until he began his personal rule in 1234, England was ruled by a series of regencies. The most fundamental developments of his reign were the emergence of parliament, the widening of the political community and the growing sense of xenophobic national identity, all shaped by opposition to royal politics. In 1258 his personal rule was ended by a political revolution far more radical than Magna Carta in 1215. 
Henry’s high view of kingship can be seen in his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey from 1245 in honour of Edward the Confessor. It was twenty-four years before the new abbey could be consecrated, and even then the building was unfinished. However, he also confirmed Magna Carta in 1237 and 1253, apparently sincerely, suggesting that he believed that the king had to act under the law. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

King John and Magna Carta

One of the four extant copies of Magna Carta
David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013) 
See also here and here.

The sudden death of Richard I at Limoges in 1199 led to the accession of his brother, John and one of the most disastrous and
Richard I's castle, Chateau
Gaillard, that fell to the French
in 1204
momentous reigns in history.  Within five years of his accession, he had lost Anjou and Maine (1203) and Normandy (1204) to the French king, Philip Augustus. In 1206 he was forced to recognise Philip’s conquest of the northern part of Aquitaine. John was left Gascony as his sole French territory. The consequences were momentous.

‘The Capetian conquest of Normandy was a turning point in European history. It made the Capetian kings dominant in western Europe, and ended the cross-Channel Anglo-Norman state. [Although] England did not cease to be part of the “community of Europe”… the days of the absentee kings were over…From 1204…kings of England for the first time since 1066 were just that…Henceforth the high aristocracy would be born and hold lands only in England. They could become as English as everyone else.’ (Carpenter 270)

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Henry II (1154-89)

David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Robin Shepherd, Westminster a Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

With the accession of Henry II, England became part of what is known as the Angevin Empire, as Henry had inherited Anjou, Maine, and Touraine from his father Geoffrey. From his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine he had gained southwest France. One chronicler described his dominions as stretching ‘from the last bounds of Scotland to the mountains of the Pyrenees’.  Given his multiple preoccupations, Henry could have neglected England, but the opposite turned out to be the case. His great achievements were to restore royal authority in England, to refashion the common law, and to conquer Ireland. His great failure was his inability to make church law subject to the secular law. With the murder of Thomas Becket, he knew that he would be unable to attack the privileges of the Church.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

England after the Conquest

For this post, I have made especial use of the following books:

David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Robin Shepherd, Westminster a Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

William the Conqueror surrounded
by his half-brothers, Odo and Robert
The Norman Conquest is a great disjunction in the history, not only of England, but of the British Isles as a whole. Hastings was a close-run battle that might have gone the other way if Harold’s army had not been exhausted by their march from the north, where they had defeated the army of Tostig and the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge.  The English were also disadvantaged because they fought solely on foot, while the Normans also fought on horseback.  The death of Harold Godwinson and his brothers at Hastings led to a crisis of leadership among the Anglo-Saxons. William’s march on London cut the city off. 

William's coronation
On Christmas Day William was crowned on a spot directly above the grave of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, taking the same coronation oaths as his Anglo-Saxon predecessors. However, unlike them he swore the oath after not before he had been anointed in order to reinforce the sanctity of his oath to ‘rule this people as well as any king before him best did’. This service had immense significance for William. From being a mere duke, he was now a king.

England before the Norman Conquest

Coin of Cnut the Great, 'Rex Anglorum'

The Danish conquest
For all England’s political and administrative sophistication, there were no clear rules of succession, a problem that was to haunt English history up to the Norman Conquest. Edgar’s death in 975 was followed by a succession struggle. His son, King Edward the Martyr, was killed at Corfe castle, probably on the orders of his stepmother, and his half-brother Æthelred became king, later known as the 'Unread', the badly advised.

In the 990s the Danes returned to England. In 991 they sacked Ipswich and in the battle of Maldon the English under Ealdorman Byrhtnoth of Essex, were defeated. The anonymous poem, The Battle of Maldon, tells the story of this defeat. What is notable about the poem is the fact that his army includes not merely the men of Essex but a Mercian and a Northumbrian, and a peasant as well as a landowner. The poem conveys a sense of Englishness, reflected in the regional and social variations.  In the aftermath the English decided to pay a tribute, or Danegeld to the Vikings in order to persuade them to leave, a famously unsuccessful strategy. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014


I have used the following books in compiling posts for the Anglo-Saxons:

David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Thomas Charles-Edwards, After Rome: Short Oxford History of the British Isles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Jayne Carroll, Stephen H. Harrison and Gareth Williams, The Vikings in Britain and Ireland (The British Museum, 2014)
Wendy Davies, From the Vikings to the Normans: Short Oxford History of the British Isles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Robin Fleming, Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 (London: Penguin, 2011)
Tom Holland, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (London: Abacus, 2008)
Robert Shepherd, Westminster: A Biography: From Earliest Times to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)
David Starkey, The Monarchy of England, vol. 1, The Beginnings (London: Chatto and Windus, 2004)
Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Penguin, 2009)

The BBC History site also has a useful short discussion

The Anglo-Saxons: invasions and settlements

In the seventeenth century the Anglo-Saxons became mythologized. The lawyer Sir Edward Coke believed that there had been an unbroken period of English liberty dating from the Anglo-Saxons. On the other hand, the radicals of the Civil War and the Interregnum believed that there had been a sharp discontinuity as England lost its historic freedoms with the imposition of the ‘Norman Yoke’ after 1066. This is discussed in a BBC 'In Our Time' programme.

The idea of the Norman Yoke was popularised in hugely influential novels like Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) and Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake: the Last of the English (1865).  At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was fashionable to praise the Anglo-Saxons as the creator of English institutions and of ‘Englishness’ itself.

 Laws they made in the Witan, the laws of flaying and fine,
Common, loppage and pannage, the theft and the track of kine,
Statutes of tun and of market for the fish and the malt and the meal,
The tax on the Bramber packhorse, and the tax on the Hastings keel.
Over the graves of the Druids and under the wreck of Rome,
Rudely but surely they bedded the plinth of the days to come.
Behind the feet of the Legions and before the Norseman's ire
Rudely but greatly begat they the framing of State and Shire.
Kipling, ‘The King’s Task’ (1902)
Note that this view is teleological- it sees the Anglo-Saxons not as they saw themselves, but as the precursors of later developments (‘the days to come’); the Witan, for example, is seen as a proto-Parliament rather than an institution existing in its own right. 

The Anglo-Saxons: the House of Wessex

Alfred and the Danes

The Anglo-Saxon walls of Winchester,
the capital of England under Alfred
Alfred of Wessex is the only English monarch to be called 'the Great'. His family have been described as the most gifted of all English royal families. He, his children and his grandson created England.

In the early winter of 870-1 the Danish 'great army’ turned south-west from East Anglia and occupied a fortified camp to the east of Reading as its forward base. King Æthelred of Wessex and his younger brother Alfred fought successfully against them at Ashdown, but they failed to swing the campaign. The Vikings defeated them twice and were reinforced by an army in the summer. In mid-April 871 Æthelred died and Alfred became king. Only a month after his accession he was defeated and had to sue for peace.

The Viking army was then forced to split in order to confront revolts in Northumbria and Mercia. One of the divisions was headed by Guthrum, who decided to carve out a kingdom for himself in Wessex. In 876-8 he attacked Wessex and cornered Alfred in the Somerset marshes. In 878 Alfred managed to get an army together and to defeat the Danes at Ethandun (probably Edington in Wiltshire).

The Anglo-Saxons: government

Athelstan, arguably the first English king
presenting a book to St Cuthbert
The tenth century sees the beginning of England’s history as the longest-lasting state of medieval Europe. Anglo-Saxon government still had Germanic roots, and it was conducted in Old English, but there was also a marked Frankish influence originating in the court of Charlemagne at Aachen. 


Alfred had looked to the Bible for his highly moralized version model of kingship, but he was also clearly influenced by the ideology of the Carolingians. The first item in his legal code proscribes a collective oath of loyalty to the king, a practice taken from Francia.  His high view of monarchy was maintained by his successors, in particular Edgar. 

An important part of the monarch’s powers lay in his control of the currency. From 1036 onwards every three years all the coins circulating in the kingdom were recalled and reminted in order to allow the king to cream off some of the silver. 

The monarch also had direct control of a high proportion of the land of England and also rights of tribute from the estates, both lay and ecclesiastical. They controlled a higher proportion of their kingdoms than did the Frankish rulers, even Charlemagne, and therefore had extensive rights of patronage.