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.