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.

The new rulers

English identity, so strong in the late Anglo-Saxon period, was shattered by the Conquest. As David Carpenter writes (p. 3) 

‘The English bishops, abbots, aristocracy and a large proportion of the county thegns were swept away, leaving the English simply as monks, peasants, minor gentry and townsmen.’  
This can be seen in the huge change in landholding. Perhaps 8,000 Normans had come over with William.  From the start he had had to reward them by giving them land. As a result, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and the provincial earldoms that had covered more than one shire disappeared. Half the country was now in the hands of 190 men, a quarter in the hands of eleven men, none of whom spoke English. The dominant elite now comprised the Norman tenants-in-chief of the king, who paid homage to the king and granted fiefs to their vassals in return for military service.  The king’s new feudal rights meant that the post-Conquest kings were more powerful than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors.  The power of the kings was exemplified in their castles, which were not only defensive fortifications, but also the military and administrative bases for royal government in the shires, housing the sheriff’s office, the mint and the county court over which the sheriff presided. 

The 'harrying of the North'

The northern revolt of 1069 was a turning point in William’s reign. Under the Danelaw the north had been virtually independent, but William insisted on imposing his direct rule. During his absence in Normandy his officials had abused their power as vice-regents, and this, combined with oppressive taxation, led to a revolt. The response was the ‘harrying of the North’, a policy that has been described a genocidal. 60 per cent of the manors in Yorkshire were laid waste. Sixteen years after the event Domesday Book still recorded 33 per cent of Yorkshire ‘waste’ and another 16 per cent as virtually without resources. 

Normans become Saxons?

Over the generations (the time-scale is disputed)  it became increasingly difficult to differentiate Normans and Anglo-Saxons. After the Conquest, Norman landlords had to work with Anglo-Saxon sub-tenants. Juries show a mixed Norman/English composition.  Normans married Anglo-Saxon women, often the widows of thegns.  Several of the chroniclers of the early twelfth century were products of mixed marriages, and their writings showed conflicting ideas about the Conquest. (The chronicler Orderic Vitalis praised William, but was the first to have used the term ‘yoke’ to describe Norman rule.) Henry I’s marriage in 1100 to Edith (Matilda) of Scotland, great-granddaughter of the Saxon king, Edmund Ironside, was of great symbolic importance. By the 1130s there was a clear cultural fusion of Normans and Saxons. In 1177 Richard FitzNeal’s Dialogue of the Exchequer reported, 
‘Now that the English and Normans have been dwelling together, marrying and giving in marriage, the two nations have become so mixed that it is scarcely possible today, speaking of free men, to tell who is English, who of Norman race.’ Quoted Crystal, 31

The Norman Conquest became a marker of English self-identification. See Daniel Defoe's ironic poem, 'The True-Born Englishman', written in 1701.

England and Normandy

After 1066 England was linked to the continent as never before.  The ruling dynasty ruled Normandy until 1204. The loss of Normandy was of great importance as the barons lost their land across the Channel, and henceforth were exclusively tied to England. But from 1154 the kings of England had also ruled Anjou and Aquitaine, so they still possessed extensive lands in France. Because of these continental involvements, England developed uniquely powerful instruments of government to keep the peace in the king’s absence and to raise money to support his continental policies. This led to the aristocratic backlash that culminated in Magna Carta.  

The English language

After the Conquest, it would be another three hundred years before England had an English-speaking king, by which time Norman French words had become part of the language. Old English, which had been a flourishing literary language, was no longer the language of the chronicles or the law courts. The king’s writs were now issued in Latin rather than English. The great bulk of the population spoke only English, but in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the upper classes started speaking it as well. By the mid-thirteenth century the highest aristocracy could speak English. Henry III might not have spoken the language, but his son, Edward I certainly did. 

Westminster Hall

Under the Conqueror’s successor, his second son, William Rufus, Westminster Hall was constructed in the space of two years. It was a massive building 240 feet by 68, with walls 6 feet 8 inches thick. Its huge size enabled large numbers to witness court ceremonies, and from the late twelfth century, the royal law courts sat there.

The coronation oath

The coronation of Rufus’s brother, Henry I in 1100, was a rushed affair, but it contained one important innovation: the coronation oath was written down for the first time, then copied by scribes and despatched to shire courts and bishoprics across the kingdom, thus becoming a Charter. In his oath, the king promised that he would not change the law without counsel. The idea was established that the king could not govern in an arbitrary fashion but had to deal ‘justly’ with his subjects. It was to form the basis of the negotiations in 1214 between King John and the baronial rebels.

The development of government

In the Henry’s reign (1100-1135) one major government department emerged.  Roger, bishop of Salisbury (1107-39), a poor priest from Caen, became first the king’s chaplain and then ‘justiciar of all England’. Central to his power was his control of the king’s revenues though the Exchequer

The Exchequer’s three-fold task was to collect the king’s annual revenue; to store and spend it on the king’s orders; to audit annually the accounts of those responsible for its collection. Each year the Exchequer officials, the Barons of the Exchequer, initially meeting at Winchester, prepared lists of the sums which the sheriffs were to collect and pay in at Easter and Michaelmas. The payments were made into the treasury, which was also at Westminster and effectively a branch of the exchequer. The receipts for payments were wooden tallies, one for each individual debt. These tallies (sticks) were cut down the middle with the payment recorded in both notches and writing on either side. One half was kept by the sheriff, the other by the Exchequer.  

Each year the revenue collectors came back to the Exchequer, where they accounted for the money they had been summoned to pay in during the previous year.  The state of the accounts was worked out visually on a chequered cloth similar to a chessboard laid across a large table, ten feet by five, with a lip around the edge upon which counters were placed representing various values. 

The results of the annual audit were recorded on a roll, later called a pipe roll

Another system that developed under Henry I also increased the powers of the crown. By at least the 1120s itinerant justices were sent round the shires to hear crown pleas and whatever civil business came before them. They were later called ‘justices in eyre’ (visitation).  

By the time of his death on 1135 Henry had created a formidably strong structure of government.  However the succession crisis that followed his death, and the wars of Stephen and Matilda, showed how powerful the great nobles could be once the grip of central government weakened.

The accession of Henry II

The war was ended by a compromise peace, the Treaty of Winchester, November 1153. Stephen made Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, his heir and successor. Henry accepted Stephen as king for the rest of his life.  It was also agreed that the new castles built during the war should be demolished. In the following months, Stephen dismantled some of the new castles and once again was able to issue a coinage from mints throughout the country. When he died on 25 October 1154, Henry succeeded, and was confronted with the huge task of rebuilding royal power.
The Angevin Empire in the reign of Henry II

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