Tuesday, 23 September 2014

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. 

In 1013 the new king of Denmark, Swein Forkbeard, invaded in force, captured York and seized the throne. Æthelred fled to the court of his brother-in-law in Normandy, where he died in 1016. However, Swein died within a year of his victory. There was a short and bloody conflict between Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, and Swein’s son, Cnut, which ended with the death of Ironside, became king.  Like Edgar, Cnut (r. 1016-35) ruled over a united country. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he may have been the first king to build a palace at Thorney Island west of London next to the Benedictine monastery established by Dunstan.

Cnut’s policy was to create a new type of aristocracy to form his English power-base. The chief of these was Godwin, whom he made earl of Wessex c. 1020. 

Cnut's reign was long and successful, often seen as a golden age in the history of England and Scandinavia, but it did not resolve the fundamental problem facing the English monarchy – how to secure the succession. On his death in 1035 a bitter wrangle over the succession ensued between his two sons, the half-brothers Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut.  ‘Harefoot’ ruled England as Harold I until his death in March 1040. He was the first king to be buried in Westminster Abbey. In 1042 Harthacnut died suddenly. Danish rule in England was now over. The way stood open for the restoration of the House of Wessex in the person of Edward, the surviving son of Æthelred. 

Edward the Confessor
On Easter Day 1043 Edward was crowned and anointed king. Two years later he married Edith, the daughter of Earl Godwin, who remained the most powerful man in the kingdom until his death in 1053. 

Edward had a Norman mother, Emma, the widow first of Æthelred then of Cnut, and he had spent much of his youth in Normandy.  He brought men of Norman extraction with him to England, making his court more cosmopolitan. His rebuilding of Westminster’s palace and abbey expressed his grand design to turn England into a Norman-style kingdom. The new abbey may have been commissioned as early as 1044 and work was probably underway by 1050. Its stone pillars and leaded roof contrasted with the wooden beams and rafters of existing Saxon churches. By 1065 the main body of the abbey was complete. 

Edward’s lack of an heir posed grave potential problems. He probably promised the throne to William of Normandy in 1051,
Harold depicted on the Bayeux
partly because of his pro-Norman sympathies and partly in an attempt to throw off the Godwins.   But when the Confessor died in January 1066, he left the kingdom to the care of his most powerful nobleman, Godwin’s son, Harold, even though there were better claimants from the House of Wessex. As the man on the spot, Harold was accepted by the Anglo-Saxon political nation.
The coronation of Harold Godwinson,
6 January 1066

By 1066 England, with the possible exception of the remote areas of Northumbria, was, by the standards of the time, a well-established and well-functioning nation-state. (The Domesday Book would not have been possible if this had not been the case.) 
A sealed writ of Edward the Confessor, evidence
that England was a well-functioning state

  1. The earlier kingdoms had been subsumed under the rule of the House of Wessex. The king described himself as ‘king of the English’; he was anointed and his images appeared on coins that circulated throughout the realm, and his writ (from the Latin brevis), authenticated by his seal, was accepted everywhere.  The nerve centre of English government was the royal household, with business in the hands of the king’s chancellor.
  2. Local government was administered at hundred or shire level through public assemblies. Whereas on the continent many nobles were feuding warlords, the English aristocracy was integrated within the system of government and made no attempt to overthrow the dynasty.  
  3. The church had helped to create this national unity. By 1066 there were twelve English bishoprics. Durham was subject to the archbishopric of York, the rest to the archbishopric of Canterbury. There were forty-five monastic houses. Bishops and abbots were appointed by the king.

The Danish raids, and the temporary Danish conquest of England, had disrupted this pattern but the peaceful return of the House of Wessex in 1042 shows that it had not undermined the fundamental stability.  All this made England a tempting prize for William of Normandy.

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