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High Middle Ages (1000-1200)

England from Saxon Kingdom to Norman Conquest: 925-1135

Germany, 920-1075: The Saxon Empire to the Investiture Controversy

The Crusades: 1095-1204


Compared to other European regions in the 10th century, England was quite advanced in the degree of central control maintained, and the lack of feudal generalization. After making peace with the Danes in England (885), Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) of Wessex reorganized Anglo-Saxon military levies and built a navy. His son Edward the Elder (r. 899-925) and grandson Aethelstan (r. 925-939) conquered the Danelaw, ruling as far north as Edinburgh. Danish residents kept most of their own traditions and small-holder farming arrangements. In Wessex and conquered areas, shires were the administrative districts. Because of a lack of feudal fragmentation, monarch-election was kept to the Alfredian line. The king had estates in every region of the kingdom, and all Anglo-Saxon freemen owed him military service. Every shire had a centrally appointed agent to assure proper collection of revenue, provision of royal justice, and services. These were called shire-reeves, or sheriffs. As well, the king appointed bishops and abbots himself, using their administrative skills for state functions. The sheriff, bishop, and an ealdorman--head local military leader--would preside over a periodic court of a shire's freemen to establish and administer justice. It was a relatively centralized administration, with a relatively efficient bureaucracy, including a chancery, or writing office, which issued writs sent to local sheriffs and other notables. An Anglosaxon holdover called a Witan elected the kings, appointing the most logical candidate from Alfred's line.

From the early eleventh century problems emerged. King Ethelred the Unready was unable to prevent King Swein of Denmark and his son Canute from invading and occupying the great majority of England by 1016. Ethelred's desperate successor, Edmund Ironside, finally came to an agreement with Canute whereby the land would be divided between them, with one of them obtaining complete rule upon the other's death. When Edmund died a few months later, Canute (r. 1016- 1035) became sole ruler of England up through Northumberland. He converted to Christianity, patronized the Church, and though members of his Danish retinue were provided with lands, there was no general confiscation. The large army was demobilized, and a small, effective force was supported by periodic taxes called Danegeld. After Canute's death, his sons quarreled over matters in Denmark, so that the Witan elected Edmund's son, Edward the Confessor, king in 1042. His rule lasted until 1066, when matters became very complicated, linking English and French history for quite a while.

Edward's uncle was Richard II, duke of French Normandy. During Canute's reign, Edward had lived in the Norman court, and when he returned to England as king he brought several Norman relatives and friends with them. They received lands, as well as central offices, annoying the local Anglosaxon elites. Key among these was Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who had actually facilitated Edward's election, and whose family was the most powerful in the realm. He hoped to be king one day, and Norman infiltration was galling to him. At this point, the story turns to Normandy itself. In the mid-eleventh century its Duke was William the Bastard. When he came to the position he was young, so the Norman nobles used his minority to divide up his lands, and his neighbors invaded. Until the 1060s, he spent his time putting Normandy back together as a unified duchy. By this time he had succeeded, and was ready to increase his authority. He was also Edward's cousin, and was overjoyed when in 1051 a break emerged between Godwin and the King regarding punishment of Wessex raiders who had attacked some Normans living in England. In the argument, Godwin and his sons were exiled for a while, during which time William visited his cousin in England, claiming shortly afterward that Edward had promised him succession to the throne.

Edward and Godwin were soon reconciled, and upon the latter's death, his able son Harold became Earl of Wessex. In 1064, though, he was shipwrecked on the Norman coast and captured by one of William's vassals. According to Norman sources, he then promised William the English succession as a price for freedom. When Edward died in 1066, the Witan elected Harold, who remembered no such promise. Thus, in 1066, there were three claimants to the English crown aside from Harold Godwinson: 1) William claimed that Edward the Confessor had appointed him successor in his will, and that Harold had broken a similar oath to him. He sent messengers to the Pope with such accusations, receiving a banner and support. The Pope had long wanted to unify the Church and William had cooperated in Normandy. Extension of cooperation to England could only help the Papacy, as the king firmly controlled the church there. 2) Harold Hardrada had been invited as a claimant by one of Godwinson's jealous brothers. 3) Swen Estrithson of Denmark felt he deserved the throne based on Canute's rule. William was the first to act against Harold Godwinson. He acquired a large army of infantry and mounted knights by issuing a general call for Norman and other French adventurers. Harold in turn called up the well-disciplined Anglosaxon army and waited on the Isle of White. The high-pressure system worked against William's crossing, yet aided Harold Hardrada, who landed in Scotland, defeating the Northumbrians. Godwinson then turned north, heading for York, taking his best forces. On September 25 at Stamford Bridge, he crushed the Danish Vikings, giving England its greatest victory ever. Meanwhile, the weather had turned, permitting William to land on the south coast of Sussex on September 27. Godwinson heard of this, and returned south, not waiting for other earls to join him, and not yet able to make good the depletion of his own forces. On 14 October 1066 William and Harold's forces met at Hastings. The Norman cavalry and Archers needed to break through the Anglosaxon heavy infantry's shield wall. This took the entire day and Harold's men almost held, yet fatigue set in, and the wall eventually broke. A route ensued, Harold and his brothers dying with the remnants of the infantry. By Christmas 1066, William was crowned king in London.

Resistance persisted, however, from 1067 to 1069, in the form of small rebellions among the Anglosaxons. In 1069 Swen Estrithson sent a fleet to York that allied with the rebels and began a more serious revolt, occupying the region. William's response was merciless. Taking on the unusual winter campaign, he marched north, with Norman forces burning all peasant villages and crops, creating an artificial famine. Thousands died, and the peasants fled. As Norman forces moved through each region, William built castles near the urban centers to monitor and reign in the population. By the spring the Danes as well left Britain. In the aftermath of the late 1060s revolts, most Anglosaxon noble lands were expropriated, with Norman elites receiving much of it in the form of fiefs held in vassalage from King William. Anglosaxons who had not resisted kept their lands in the same fashion. He of course, assumed title to the crown lands, and in feudal fashion, assigned quotas of knights that each fief holder had to provide for the royal army. As well, he lived up to the Pope Gregory VII's hopes, reforming the Church by expelling most English prelates and replacing them with French bishops and abbots.

William ruled until his death in 1087. He left Normandy to his eldest son Robert Curthose, with his younger son William II (r. 1087-1100) receiving England. Known as William Rufus, this son was exceedingly exploitative regarding the crown's vassals, using every chance to increase royal revenue and power. He thus faced numerous baronial revolts, many of which were supported by his brother Robert. He had felt left out of the English inheritance, and so stirred up trouble there. William II responded by invading Normandy, fighting his brother continuously until Robert departed for the First Crusade, leaving the French areas to William. Later, in 1100, William died in a hunting accident, and his younger brother Henry I (r. 1100-1135) assumed the crown by securing the royal treasury at Winchester. As a younger member of the family, his position was precarious, especially if Robert were to return from the East. He thus issued a charter promising to end his predecessor's abuses of the barons. This did not prevent baronial revolts in England and Normandy. He first defeated English rebels, exiling them, then crossed to Normandy itself, and met Robert, recently returned from the Crusade, at Tinchebray (1106). Henry won the battle, reuniting the two regions. For the next several years, he struggled with Louis VI of France to assure control in Normandy. By 1127, Henry had no surviving male heirs, and so compelled England's senior clerics and barons to recognize his daughter Mathilda as heir. She was German King Henry V's widow, and in 1028, she married Geoffrey, count of Anjou, a region in west-central France. His nickname was Plantagenet ('sprig of broom'), based on his helmet decoration.


Anglosaxon England was managed relatively well, and had a relatively strong army. So why did it fall to the Norman Bastard, and why was the end result not simply a change of dynasty, but a much larger political change? First, we must apportion prime significance to luck and conjuncture. One could well argue that had Harold Godwinson not had to deal with Harold Hardrada's landing in the north, his forces would have been better filled out, more rested, and more completely arrayed to deal with the Norman invasion. Anglosaxon warriors were no less accomplished at their art than were their French opponents. More concretely, some factors suggest themselves: a) for the generation prior to 1066, a series of earls had started to come between the King and several shires, perhaps decreasing the royal domains or revenues. Definitely, the rising strife weakened the body politic's cohesion and unity. b) William was able to nullify his numerical inferiority against Harold by hiring Norman and other French knight-adventurers. Primogeniture in passing on feudal possessions in France meant that large numbers of second and third sons were trained as warriors, and in need of new prospects. Thus, William was able to gather a large host. c) Godwinson's army was certainly enervated after engaging Hardrada, and the English king did not wait for reinforcements. d) It may be that the heavily- armored, mounted French knights had tactical superiority over the Anglosaxon bowmen and infantry. This is not certain though, as the Saxons held out for quite a while. Perhaps, though, attrition in this kind of combat would deplete Anglosaxon forces more quickly than would be the case for French knights. Such a pattern would occur during the Crusades.

Before dealing with systemic changes in Norman England, we should also look at the 1066-1070 revolts. Why did they not succeed? 1) There was no candidate for Anglosaxon king that could unite all the rebels. Harold and his family had been killed, and the Witan was no longer active. 2) In the same way, the organized Anglosaxon army had been wiped out. 3) The revolts were mostly in the North, in and beyond Yorkshire. Here the population was thin and mostly non-warrior. Also, this region was far from the real centers of English power. 4) Swen Estrithson's landing convinced William that the threat to his rule was quite real. What might have otherwise been a war of attrition turned into a major Norman onslaught, a key focus of which was rural destruction for its own sake-- the denial of a material basis for northern residents.

This last point hints at the nature of the change from Anglosaxon to Norman. In the north, there was simply no longer an Anglosaxon basis. This also occurred on the elite level. By apportioning lands to Normans, and by 'reforming' the English church, William decapitated the tops of Anglosaxon society, replacing it with Normans. Northumberland became a march on the Scottish border given as fief to a great Norman lord, just as nearby Durham was given as fief to the area's newly appointed bishop. Thus, the change consisted of the creation of a system much more like the European feudal model, yet with divergences similar to the English precedent that gave Norman kings much more control over their realms. On the one hand all lands were now held as fiefs, and secular jurisdiction was separated from ecclesiastical, as was the European case. Further, the Norman curia, or assembly of feudal vassals, replaced the Witan. Also, Anglosaxon landowners who were allowed to remain in place now faced new feudal burdens, just as small farmers who had previously been nearly free were now subjected to a Norman lord and went through a process of semi- enserfment. On the other hand, vassals of all levels were made to swear that their feudal loyalties were not at al to come before loyalty to the king. Further, William had come to possess Anglosaxon royal domains, and was the wealthiest man in the realm. He could thus demand regular feudal knight service for any campaign. Also, he maintained or strengthened Anglosaxon practices. Popular courts continued to administer justice, and the offices of sheriff remained, now occupied by Normans. That the king appointed these sheriffs allowed him to control local administration much more closely than could feudal leaders in Europe. As well, the Anglosaxon chancery was maintained, as was the right to levy occasional taxes, and the prohibition of barons' private wars. The best testimony to this feudal centralism was the Domesday Book of 1086. Royal commissioners held sessions in each county and then calculated al the revenue resources of a district, as well as its feudal relations and military potential. This provided the sovereign with a wealth of information about how to use best his realms.

William Rufus and Henry extended these processes. Rufus kept barons in control by financial extraction. He also began replacing barons in sheriff positions with men of much lower social rank. Henry completed this process. As well, royal justices sent from the center began to adjudicate more and more cases that used to be dealt with on the local level. Thus, both sheriffs and royal justices were chosen from people without local social status, and they would owe everything to the crown. Henry also centralized financial administration. Before him, financial reserves were simply kept in a strong castle, while current funds were stored in the king's own bedchamber. Henry sent three of his chamberlains to the Winchester castle, along with the current funds. One official became the treasurer, while his assistants were the chamberlains of the exchequer, maintaining better control of central finances. As regards royal revenues in the shires, a body of Barons of the Exchequer mad twice yearly, at which sheriffs accounted for expenditures and their need for reimbursement by the crown. Thus, Norman England was indeed feudal, but by combining Anglosaxon practices with innovations to remain masters in their own realm, English kings were much more powerful than their French, or perhaps even German counterparts. Still, all this was accompanied by an overall depression in the socio-economic conditions of the average Englishman in comparison to pre-Norman times.

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