The story of britain: from the romans to the present


From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright © 2003 by Rebecca Fraser

Originally published in Great Britain under the titleA People’s History of Britain

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fraser, Rebecca.[People's history of Britain]The story of Britain : from the Romans to the present : a narrative history / Rebecca Fraser.—1st American ed.p. cm.“Originally published in Great Britain under the title A People’s history of Britain”—T.p. verso.Includes bibliographical references.1. Great Britain—History—Anecdotes. I. Title.DA32.8.F73 2005941—dc222004026049

ISBN: 978-0-393-07249-5

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT





Ethelbert of Kent to the Viking Invasions (597–865) 33

Alfred the Great to the Battle of Hastings (865–1066) 57


William I (1066–1087)

William II (1087–1100)

Henry I (1100–1135)

Stephen of Blois (1135–1154)

Henry II (1154–1189)

Richard I (1189–1199)

John (1199–1216)


Henry III (1216–1272)

Edward I (1272–1307)

Edward II (1307–1327)

Edward III (1327–1377)

Richard II (1377–1399)


Henry IV (1399–1413)

Henry V (1413–1422)

Henry VI (1422–1461)

Edward IV (1461–1483)

Edward V (1483)

Richard III (1483–1485)


Henry VII (1485–1509)

Henry VIII (1509–1547)

Edward VI (1547–1553)

Mary I (1553–1558)

Elizabeth I (1558–1603)


James I (1603–1625)

Charles I (1625–1649)

Divine Right (1625–1642)

Civil War (1642–1649)

The Commonwealth and Protectorate (1649–1660)

Charles II (1660–1685)

James II (1685–1688)

William and Mary (1689–1702)

Anne (1702–1714)


George I (1714–1727)

George II (1727–1760)

George III (1760–1820)

Patriot King (1760–1793)

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815)

Radical Agitation (1815–1820)

George IV (1820–1830)

William IV (1830–1837)

Victoria (1837–1901)

Corn Laws and Irish Famine (1837–1854)

Palmerstonian Aggression (1854–1868)

Gladstone and Disraeli (1868–1886)

Imperialism and Socialism (1886–1901)


Edward VII (1901–1910)


George V (1910–1936)

Last Years of Peace (1910–1914)

The First World War (1914–1918)

Peacemaking and the Rise of Fascism (1918–1936)

Edward VIII (1936)

George VI (1936–1952)

The Failure of Appeasement (1936–1939)

The Second World War (1939–1945)

Reform at Home, Communism Abroad (1945–1952)

Elizabeth II (1952–)

Wind of Change (1952–1964)

The Sick Man of Europe (1964–1979)

The Thatcher Legacy (1979–2002)

Further Reading


Prime Ministers


When I was young there were various histories of Britain which seemed to provide a clear route through our long and immensely complicated past. They were heavily biographical, extremely colourful and full of adventures which made them easy to remember. The most famous of them,Our Island Story, was written in 1905 by a New Zealand lady named Henrietta Marshall at the height of empire when Britain was, in the immortal words of1066 and All That, ‘Top Nation’. Needless to say, the world has moved on and so has the point of view of Clio, the muse of history. What might seem heroic to an earlier generation appears in a different guise today.

But it seemed to me, when I embarked on this book with three young daughters in mind, that some kind of easy framework was still needed to guide the average person through the confusing shoals of disputed facts, to give a broad-brush picture of the past to those not in the van of historical research. The national curriculum today enables many young people to grow up used to handling esoteric historical documents yet without any real chronological sense of the years between, say, the Stuarts and the Victorians. Many children might be forgiven for believing that the Egyptians and the Aztecs once lived on these islands too. The aim of this history is to attempt to return to those old rules of ‘who, when, what, how’.

Furthermore, if I may strike a patriotic note, there is a great deal to celebrate about Britain that is owed to the dead Britons of the past. The impact of some gifted individuals was so great that Britain would have been a different place without them. Their actions produced turning points in history. William Wilberforce was the driving force behind the abolition of the slave trade; Florence Nightingale saved the lives of British soldiers condemned to death by the inertia of the army bureaucracy. Despite the cruelty of the Normans or the Tudors, one of the glories of Britain’s history is the essentially free-spirited, not to say bloody-minded, nature of her natives. From Boudicca onwards a heady something in the air makes Britons resist their rulers if they go too far. That tradition of defending the rule of law and the rights of ordinary people against despots gave the world Parliamentary democracy.

In my view the history of a people must include the anecdotes which have become embedded in the national psyche, because they reflect the values of that people. I therefore make no apology for re-telling some of the nation’s best-loved stories, though the facts on which they rest may be dubious to say the least. The important thing is that they have stood the test of time and continue to be related after hundreds of years. It is surely illustrative of the British people that our favourite anecdotes concern the mighty being willing to stand corrected by the ordinary man or (in Alfred’s case) woman in the street.

Ironic, kindly, democratic, humorous, energetic, tolerant and brave, surely these are the best qualities of the British people. If the British over the centuries have thrown up a number of harsh rulers and policies, there seems to have been no shortage of British men and women ready to confront them, from John Hampden to the British missionaries who tried to stop Cecil Rhodes seizing the lands of the Ndebele people and creating Rhodesia. Along with Joe Chamberlain’s municipal socialism, the creation of the National Health Service is the greatest testimonial to the best British humanitarian ideals.

Despite considering myself a Scot with Irish roots, and being very conscious of those nations’ and Wales’ independent histories, most of this narrative has been driven by the story of the English kingdom. Since the Parliament at Westminster remains the chief law-making body for all four countries, and while the United Kingdom remains intact, I believe this is still a valid approach.

Although the errors in this volume are all my own, this book owes more than I can adequately describe to the generous help of the historian Alan Palmer, whose profound and encyclopaedic knowledge of British history has been inspiring. My editor Penelope Hoare has been extremely patient in waiting for this book, as has my inestimable agent Ed Victor. My children Blanche, Atalanta and Honor have put up with historical expeditions during their school holidays, such as tramping across the bitterly cold battlefields of Culloden at Easter, with relative good humour. I want to thank Helen Fraser (no relation), who commissioned this book, Alison Samuel, the publisher of Chatto and Windus, for her encouragement, and my mother Antonia Fraser who has not only read the manuscript at all stages but remained intensely interested in the project. I also want to thank my stepfather Harold Pinter for reading the manuscript in its early stages, as did my late grandfather and grandmother Frank and Elizabeth Longford. I am also very grateful to Patrick Seale for sharing his immense knowledge of the Middle East and to the extraordinarily learned Daniel Johnson for many gifts of books which he thought would be of use. Laura Lindsay of Christie’s used her command of British pictures to point me in the right direction with the visual images. I would like to thank the late Dr Gerald Brodribb, who took me round the Roman bathhouse he had unearthed at Beauport Park in East Sussex. Thanks also to Philip Flower for permission to reproduce a part of his grandfather’s unique photographic records of the Boer War, to Robert Silver for the inspiration provided by his childhood copy ofThe Pictorial History of England, and to my brother-in-law the artist Coleman Saunders, Lily Richards and Poppy Hampson, in particular, for their picture research. I am also most grateful to Christopher Woodhead for his continued encouragement, to Edward Barker for the views of a teenage history buff, and to Laure de Gramont for a French view of Albion. I am indebted to Dr Munro Price for his help and to Professor Ralph Griffiths for reading the proofs. The book would not be in the shape it is without the brilliant work of Peter James on the manuscript.

Lastly, the greatest thanks of all must go to my husband Edward Fitzgerald who has lived with this book and whose passion for history remains undiminished.

Page 2

ROMAN Roman 

I have chosen to begin the story of Britain in the year the Romans came, fifty-five years before the birth of Christ, over 2,000 years ago. Before Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire’s greatest general, led his first expedition ashore, the country’s stormy seas isolated her from the traffic of the European continent. Apart from her own inhabitants, no one knew very much about the place, though there were rumours. How far did it stretch north? Were its forests impenetrable? Was it really an island? Was its mineral wealth extraordinary?

Since at least the fourth century before Christ, that is 250 years before Caesar appeared, the natives had been mining highly prized gold and tin for export at the Island of Ictis (St Michael’s Mount) on the extreme south-western tip of Britain, and they had trading links as far afield as the Mediterranean. As a result of this trade, in 300BCthe Greek colony of Massilia, or Marseilles, had sent one of its citizens named Pytheas on a reconnaissance trip to Britain. Pytheas had noted the friendly nature of the inhabitants. It was said that the Britons’ relations further east had some secret method of transporting vast blue stones from a more mountainous region. On a great plain north-east of their chief port in Dorset, they or perhaps their gods were said to have erected the enormous circle called Stonehenge which was used for religious ceremonies.

But Pytheas’ description is a mere fragment reported in a later work. Since the British tribes could not read or write, they remain as mysterious and fabled as their distant ancestors, the small, dark, long-headed Neolithic or New Stone Age invaders who started to arrive from the Mediterranean in 3000BC. That British Neolithic man hacked at the soil with deer antlers to grow a little wheat, and that he used flint-headed arrows to kill game for food have had to be deduced from what archaeologists have found in their long barrow graves. It is only when we get to Caesar’sCommentaries on the Gallic Warthat we are able to read the first written description of the country known to the Romans for 400 years as Britain.

By the time of Pytheas and Caesar himself the inhabitants of ancient Britain were mainly what have come to be known as Iron Age Celts. Like the Iberians in Spain and the Gauls in France, they were members of the great military aristocracy which until the rise of the Rome city state in the third centuryBCwere masters of the trade routes between northern and central Europe and the Mediterranean. The Celts were the second wave of invaders to follow Neolithic man to Britain, but they came 2,000 years later, around 1000BC. Between Neolithic man, whose great monument is the stone-circle temple at Avebury in Wiltshire, and the Celts another wave of invaders had arrived.

These invaders were round-headed Bronze Age people, originally from the Rhineland, who reached Britain in about 1900BC. They were a stronger, larger race than Neolithic man, though still dark and swarthy, and they swiftly occupied England from the east coast of Yorkshire down to Surrey. This more sophisticated race is sometimes known as the Beaker People because of the drinking vessels found in their graves. They could make tools from bronze; they built Stonehenge; they buried their dead in individual round barrows. But in their turn about 1000BCtheir way of life was challenged by a new, more powerful civilization.

From the first millenniumBCthe Celts of eastern Europe were migrating west. The expansion of the Germanic tribes at their back encouraged them to move into northern and western Europe, particularly into France, Spain and Britain, bringing with them what is known as the Iron Age. Their peoples were sophisticated enough to known the secret of mining iron ore out of the ground–they could extract the iron ore by heating it. Then they worked the more difficult metal by beating layers of it together. This enabled them to achieve a major advance on bronze or flint tools, and with their stronger iron spears they easily defeated the Bronze Age peoples. They could also travel faster in chariots furnished with iron wheels and drawn by horses that they loved so much they had them buried with them in their graves.

Tall and fair skinned with red or blond hair and blue or green eyes, the Celts were not only physically quite dissimilar to Bronze Age man, they also spoke a different language. No one is quite sure why two kinds of Celtic languages developed. Goidel, from which comes the word Gaelic, was spoken in Ireland and Scotland, and Brythonic is the family from which Welsh, Breton and Cornish derive. Unlike the cave-dwelling Neolithic man, the Celts built their own huts with posts sunk in mud and woven branches for the roof. Although at first they lived in hill forts enabling them to command the countryside, they developed ploughs and were soon farming the surrounding land in small square fields, a shape that would continue through Roman times. Some of those who settled in south-west England lived in lakeside villages, island-like enclaves designed for protection. The Celts were ruled by queens as well as kings, and might even be led in battle by women.

By the first centuryBCBritain (or Britannia, as the Romans called it) had attracted Caesar’s hostile attention. He wished to put an end to the use of Britannia as a sanctuary by the leaders of Gaul (a country covering roughly the territory of modern France) rebelling against their Roman overlords. Archaeologists have shown that in the first centuryADthe inhabitants of Britain’s south coast, sailing from their chief port of Hengistbury Head in Dorset, had a great deal of trade with Gaul. Within Caesar’s lifetime southern Britain and northern France may have been ruled by a Gallic overlord called Diviacus. Caesar believed that the Britons’ powerful religious leaders, the Druids, were also helping to foment trouble. The rebellious Belgae in north-west Gaul, what is now Belgium, had close relations across the Channel in Britain to whom they were in the habit of fleeing in times of trouble. These Belgae, who were now known as Catuvellauni after their leader Cassivellaunus, had settled there from Gaul within living memory. Making Britannia a province of the Roman Empire would finally break the power of the Belgae, whom Caesar was determined to destroy. It would also usefully add to his reputation as a great man by extending the empire even to the edge of the known world. Expanding the empire’s territories, rather than administering them, was how glory and power were won in the uniquely militaristic society of Caesar’s Rome.

Gathering information about Britain’s harbours and landing places was one reason why Caesar sailed across the ‘Ocean’ (the Channel) on his first expedition in 55BC. He landed with some difficulty owing to a spring tide which swamped his heavy transport ships. He noted that the houses and inhabitants of Britain seemed very similar to those of Gaul, with the striking difference that rich or poor the British men were shaved of all bodily hair (except for the upper lip, where they grew long moustaches) and painted with a blue dye called woad. Their reddish hair was also worn very long, often with a headband. They knew how to cure hides for export and had a good trade with the continent in iron, cattle and corn, using gold and iron bars in a rudimentary currency system. But as Caesar approached the shores of Kent at what is now Deal the woad-covered Britons looked wild and primitive as they whirled in their chariots on the cliffs above him. Because they wore skins Caesar assumed that they could have no knowledge of cloth-weaving, which to a Roman was one of the marks of civilization. But the ancient Britons’ appearance was misleading. They knew how to spin wool, how to weave it into garments and how to dye it with colours from flowers and insects. Indeed they usually wore long woollen tunics, cloaks and robes fastened by intricate articles of jewellery in swirling patterns which their talented smiths made out of gold, silver and enamel. They were half naked when they were first seen by Caesar only because that was their battle costume. Their Celtic relations, the Gauls across the channel, fought completely naked.

Caesar nevertheless continued to believe that, although the people of Cantium (his translation of the name he heard them use for their country–that is, Kent) were in fact fairly civilized and knew how to grow grain, Britons who lived further north did not know how to cultivate crops and lived on what they hunted. It was true that compared to Roman civilization, with its advanced precision engineering which enabled the Romans to build stone bridges, roads and aqueducts, its architectural science which threw up palaces and forts, its military and political science, the Britons seemed childlike, ignorant and superstitious. They were ruled by the white-robed Druids, who regarded mistletoe as sacred and practised human sacrifice, burning their victims in wicker cages. Hares, fowl and geese were also sacred, which meant they could not be eaten–although the Britons liked them as pets. The Britons were said to love poetry, but they were also extremely quarrelsome.

Caesar found Britannia’s climate more temperate than that of Gaul, though much wetter, and by his water clock he could confirm that being further north the nights in this strange new country were shorter than on the continent. Moving inland he came upon a great river in the east of the country about eighty miles from the south coast which he called the Thamium, a Latin approximation of the name the ancient Britons gave to what we still know as the Thames. He was impressed by the bravery of the British warriors and by their methods of chariot warfare, describing them in considerable detail. In particular he observed their brilliant control of their horses, which they drove fearlessly down steep slopes at full gallop only to turn them in an instant. They would then run along the pole of the chariot to the yoke and urge the horses onwards.

Despite the apparently lower form of civilization that prevailed in Britain, neither of Caesar’s two expeditions reflected much glory on him. His famous wisecrack ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (I came, I saw, I conquered), never applied to Britain. His first invasion ended in stalemate because the effect of British tides was unknown to a man brought up in the tideless Mediterranean, and he failed to land enough soldiers to secure the country. He attempted another invasion from Boulogne a year later, in 54BCwith a huge force of twenty-eight warships and 800 transports (built lower for British waters) and this time was more successful. Under the ensuing peace treaty the British tribes were meant to send tribute to Rome once a year, but the invasion ended inconclusively when Caesar had to dash back to Gaul to stamp out a rebellion.

Caesar might say that the Cantii of Kent, the powerful Trinovantes of Essex and the Iceni of Norfolk had surrendered to him, but unlike when the real conquest of Britain took place under the Emperor Claudius ninety years later he left no garrisons behind. Though he and his legions had crossed the Thames it was only the defection of the Trinovantes of Essex which saved the Romans from being driven out of the country by the sheer weight of the British numbers. For once the squabbling British tribes had united, under Cassivellaunus. In the face of the separate peace reached by the Trinovantes, Cassivellaunus decided it was wiser to make terms with Caesar. But these were hardly onerous. There was no sense that Britain now formed the most westerly outpost of the empire. Caesar himself does not seem to have believed that he had really conquered Britain. He never ordered a Triumph, the traditional way of showing off new acquisitions by parading the natives as slaves around Rome. The only trophy he is said to have displayed was a corselet made of British freshwater pearls (he was very disappointed by the lack of silver in Britain). He may have been pleased to leave a country whose climate the first-century Roman historian Tacitus would call ‘objectionable, with its frequent rains and mists’, where crops were slow to ripen but quick to grow due to the ‘extreme moistness of land and sky’.

Then Caesar’s attention was diverted by the Civil Wars back in Italy, and his successors too had more pressing concerns than Britain. For almost a hundred years the Britons under their kings and chiefs were free to carry on the existence of their ancestors, but very subtly and slowly their lives were changing. They were increasingly in contact with Rome at both diplomatic and trade levels. Britain was now selling grain to the Roman Empire and buying olive oil and wine from Roman traders in exchange, as we can tell from their presence in late-first-centuryBCBritish graves. Highly wrought artefacts of Roman workmanship–such as the silver cups found at Hockwold in Norfolk–previously believed to have been the property of Roman officers after the invasion are now thought to be gifts to an important pre-conquest British chieftain from the Roman government. Increased contact with Roman-educated Gauls escaping to Britain–for example, Commius, who had helped Caesar with the attempted invasion, but who became king of the Atrebates in the Sussex area–brought more Roman habits into Britain. By the end of the first centuryBCa number of kings in southern England, including Tincommius, Commius’ son, who lived at Silchester in Hampshire, had their own mints. They were striking their own coins inscribed in Latin and calling themselves ‘rex’ even though they could not themselves read or write.

The most important of these kingdoms were those ruled by the descendants of Cassivellaunus, whose tribe the Catuvellauni had massively extended their territories since Caesar’s departure. The lands of the Catuvellauni stretched in a semi-circle from Cambridge and Northampton down through Hertfordshire to Surrey, south of what became London. By the beginning of the first centuryADthey were ruled by King Cunobelinus (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), whose coins bear the letters CUNO. The early-second-century Roman historian Suetonius called him King of the Britons. It was because of a row between Cunobelinus and his son Adminius that the far-off and still mysterious country of Britain once more came to the attention of the authorities in Rome. For Prince Adminius, who had been banished by his father, fled to Rome and the court of the Emperor Caligula.

Page 3

Now that Britain had been put on the map for the Romans by Caesar, conquering it had remained for the Roman government a perpetual but distant ambition: having resisted Caesar the country had acquired a certain glamour. With the arrival of the exiled British prince Adminius, imperial interest was once more aroused. The Emperor Caligula began preparations for a new invasion. He built boats, gathered arms and raised money and troops. Whether he ever really arrived at the cliffs of Dover, and was so put off by their height that he set his disgusted soldiers to gather shells of the seashore as ‘spoils of the ocean’ in place of ‘spoils of war’ is not clear. Satirical jokes about the cruel Emperor Caligula were often told, so one cannot be sure whether the report is fact or fiction.

But nine years later, inAD43, Caligula’s preparations were taken up when his cousin, the eccentric but energetic new emperor Claudius, needed a military conquest to secure his shaky throne. It was under Claudius that the subduing of Britain began in earnest, as it was turned into a Roman province held by military garrisons in forts erected systematically across the country. This time the Roman invaders–four legions consisting of 20,000 soldiers plus 20,000 auxiliaries–would occupy the country up to Scotland and stay for four centuries. After his military commander Aulus Plautius had defeated the Britons north of the Medway, Claudius arrived with elephants to make a triumphant progress through Cunobelinus’ former capital Camulodunum, or Colchester, in Essex. Conquering Britain brought much-needed political credit to Claudius.

By the end of the first centuryADBritain had been completely integrated into the empire as the province Britannia. Roman military tactics and Roman armour had ensured that after only six years of fighting, 40,000 Romans had subdued hundreds of thousands of British Celts, conquering England up to the Rivers Trent, Severn and Dee. However, despite the formidable superiority of the Roman invaders, some hope remained among many ancient Britons of re-establishing their independence and throwing the Romans off their island. The extent of the British tribes’ obsession with personal liberty would impress and amaze the sober Romans, who had to crush their many rebellions. But their spirited bravery was not enough. What counted most against them was the tribes’ fatal habit of treachery. This meant that their one source of strength–their great numbers–was never used against the Romans. Tacitus believed that ‘nothing has helped us more in war with their strongest nations’ than the British tribes’ ‘inability to co-operate’. Their universal tendency was to make separate treaties with Rome and then to turn on one another. Never has there been a better example of Caesar’s maxim ‘divide and rule’ than in first-century Britain. Had the tribes only united as they had under Cassivellaunus, by sheer weight of numbers they might have held the Romans at bay.

Claudius was careful to establish good relations with many British kings and queens. Another method of pacifying Britannia was immigration. Old soldiers started arriving in Britain from Italy to make a new life; as a reward for their thirty years of service to the Roman Empire they were given grants of British land in what were called ‘veterans’ colonies’. This was the traditional Roman way of turning a country into a Roman province. Nevertheless, for nine long years under another of Cunobelinus’ sons, the chieftain Caractacus, a dangerous British patriotic resistance continued in the west on the borders of Wales. These Britons refused to be driven off their land to make way for Roman colonies, and were further enraged by the governor Ostorius Scapula’s calls for all the British tribes to disarm.

Caractacus’ followers were a tribe called the Silures. Swarthy and curly haired, believed by Caesar to be of Spanish origin, they had a reputation for extreme ferocity. Under Caractacus their fame spread as far as Italy, where it was considered extraordinary that a barbarian chieftain could defy the resources of imperial Rome. Caractacus waged an early kind of guerrilla warfare, moving his men from territory to territory. But having taken cover in Shropshire, the land of the Ordovices tribe, he made the mistake of thinking that, given the vast numbers of Britons flocking to join him, he could defeat the Romans in pitched battle. In words which would win the admiration of Roman contemporaries and confirm their view of the central importance of liberty to the British character, Caractacus told his men that there was no point in living if all they had to look forward to was a miserable existence spent in hiding: they must win their freedom back or they would be enslaved for ever.

Caractacus had chosen the site of his stand well. With looming cliffs behind them, and protected by a river and man-made ramparts, the long-haired, moustachioed, blue-skinned tribes shook their spears at the enemy, whooping and uttering fierce guttural yells. But brave though they were, and though their iron shields and spears were admirably robust, they stood little chance against the Romans’ superior battle tactics: their missiles and rocks shattered harmlessly against the Romans’ armour and against their famous tortoise formation, in which they placed their shields together like an umbrella. Moving implacably forward the Roman soldiers stormed the ramparts. The battle was over almost before it had begun. The advance party of auxiliaries attacked, throwing javelins, while behind them marched the well-protected infantry in close formation, silently and methodically cutting down all who had escaped the auxiliaries. The surviving British tribesmen had to run for the hills.

Caractacus fled east and threw himself on the mercy of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, the powerful tribe who with the Parisi ruled the part of northern England today called Yorkshire. But Cartimandua had allied herself to the Romans, so Caractacus was shipped off to Rome with his wife and children. There he continued to impress the Romans by his unbreakable spirit. Unlike other captives who marched past the emperor howling for mercy, Caractacus maintained a proud and resolute bearing undiminished by his haggard appearance. Limping after his wife and brothers and his little children, all of them bound in chains, he suddenly stepped out of the procession, approached the emperor’s dais and addressed him boldly. Caractacus told Claudius that only fate had given victory to the emperor and not to him, and that the emperor should not be surprised that Caractacus was sorry to lose. The emperor might want to rule the world, but did it follow that everyone else would welcome enslavement? If he had surrendered without a blow neither he nor the fact of his capture would have become famous. ‘If you kill me they will be forgotten,’ he said, ‘but show mercy, and I shall be an eternal reminder of your clemency.’ Claudius was so moved by the speech of the barbarian prince that he ordered Caractacus’ chains to be struck off, and he and his family freed.

In Britain itself, however, the Romans’ humiliating treatment of the conquered tribes continued to arouse resentment. A slave-owning society themselves, the Britons considered that the Romans were treating them like slaves. This was the fault of the first Roman governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula. The Roman Empire everywhere relied on the co-operation of local chieftains if it was to be successfully administered. What made a difference was the nature of the local ruler, whether he was a sensitive and thoughtful man. Ostorius Scapula did not possess the same diplomatic touch as the emperor Claudius, who had received the friendly British tribes with ceremony and respect.

Ostorius Scapula turned a blind eye to local taxes raised illegally from the inhabitants of Colchester in order to build an enormous statue of the Emperor Claudius–a monument which the religious Britons disliked as a visible sign of the occupying power. He did nothing to prevent ex-servicemen taking Essex land illegally from the Trinovantes for their veterans’ colony; indeed he probably profited from it himself. Since the British showed no mercy in their guerrilla attacks on the veterans, the veterans in turn showed no mercy to the Trinovantes, throwing them out of their homes and seizing their land. Normally Roman garrisons were punctilious about making sure veterans’ colonies observed the terms of the treaties, but the soldiers in Essex had their eye on British land when their own thirty-year service was up, so they ignored the veterans’ misbehaviour. When Ostorius died of exhaustion from battling the Silures, his militaristic successor Suetonius Paulinus did nothing to soothe an already inflamed situation by launching a military attack on the sacred island of Anglesey, the home of the Druids. Paulinus believed that if he could extirpate that nest of rebels the British resistance would die a natural death.

ByAD61 relations between the Romans and the British tribes were already in a bad way. It was particularly bad north-east of London around Colchester and in Norfolk where the Trinovantes’ neighbours the Iceni tribe had still more to anger them. Their dying king Pratusagus had tried to ensure that his wife Queen Boudicca was protected from the bad treatment being meted out to the Britons by making Rome co-heir to his kingdom with his two daughters. Instead of being satisfied by this the local military commander had flogged the beautiful red-haired queen with rods and raped her two teenage daughters. The Romans then destroyed her houses and removed her household treasures–her silver flagons, engraved mirrors and gold jewellery disappearing into the commander’s quarters. Finally he expelled her and the Iceni from their lands, which the Romans at once subjected to an orgy of destruction.

Paulinus, being new to his command, had no sense of the anger burning among the British tribes and failed to see that the real threat to Rome’s regime lay not in Wales but in East Anglia. Directly he had turned his back on East Anglia and set off to lay waste Anglesey, across the country the furious Iceni rose. With the queen were the Trinovantes and all the other tribes pushed beyond endurance. While Paulinus and his soldiers were in Wales, building boats to take them across to Anglesey, in Essex Queen Boudicca had gathered an army of 120,000 men, three times the strength of the Roman legions in Britain. These forces surged into the new Roman town of Colchester, which its arrogant settlers had foolishly built without walls. Having destroyed it, including the Temple of Claudius, and routed the Ninth Legion, they streamed on to London (Londinium).

It was the common opinion among the Roman command that had Suetonius Paulinus not rushed back south Britain would have been lost to Rome. As it was, Paulinus sacrificed London to save the province of Britain. The citizens implored him for help but, though Londinium was the trading centre of Roman Britain, Paulinus sent no troops. He regarded London as indefensible because it was really a collection of merchants’ settlements, being unwalled and not garrisoned. Having massacred its citizens, the vengeful Britons put London to the torch. So great was the heat that Roman buildings were reduced to a layer of red clay which to this day lies thirteen feet deep below the city’s pavements. A part of it can be seen where it has been exposed by archaeologists beside the Barbican, near the Museum of London.

Meanwhile the British horde swept on. They are estimated to have killed 70,000 Roman settlers, but they looted indiscriminately and never thought of destroying important military targets like forts and garrisons. Queen Boudicca, standing in her chariot spear in hand, a heavy yellow torc round her neck, and her red-gold hair in two long plaits held in place by a headband, made a series of magnificent speeches as she drove around the tribes drawn up on the battlefield. But, despite their enormous numbers, when they met Paulinus in the Midlands the Britons once again came to grief in pitched battle against the Romans. The assembled chiefs could not agree on a battle plan and around 80,000 of their men were killed by 10,000 Roman soldiers. Refusing to allow her beloved girls to fall into the hands of the Romans again, Boudicca forced them to drink poison from a golden cup and then drank it herself. When Paulinus found her, the great queen was dead, but she looked as peaceful as if she were asleep, clasping her daughters in her arms.

Two thousand extra Roman troops had to be rushed over from Germany to ensure that the victory in southern Britain was permanent. Because there had been no one left to look after the crops, famine weakened the resistance of the British tribes, but nothing seemed to crush their spirit or curb their sharp tongues. When the emperor sent an ex-slave named Polyclitus with still more troops to advise Paulinus on the better management of the province, the Romans were astonished by the way the Britons even in their darkest hour clung to the idea of freedom and dared to jeer at the spectacle of such a great general as Paulinus having to obey a slave. But Wales and northern Britain remained unconquered. By the late 60s, raids by the Parisi tribe of Humberside, the Brigantes of Yorkshire (who had turned hostile) and the Silures and Ordovices of Wales made it necessary for further Roman onslaughts to subdue the recalcitrant British tribes.

FromAD68 onwards, successful campaigns by a series of Roman governors brought the rest of the island, up to southern Scotland, at least temporarily under imperial control. Roman forts to garrison the conquered areas were established at York, Caerleon and Chester in the early ’70s and new northern roads carved their way across the landscape from York to Corbridge to Newstead and as far as the River Tay. The most famous of these first-century governors was Agricola, who in seven great campaigns between 74 and 84 completed the conquest of north-west Britain and established a sturdy system of roads and forts to defend her. ByAD78 he had defeated the Ordovices in Shropshire, conquered Anglesey and stationed the Twentieth Legion at Chester in a new fortress; the next year he constructed a road from Chester to Carlisle (which he fortified) and placed garrisons between the Solway Firth and Tyne. He next took his legions as far as the Moray Firth in Invernesshire, and at the Battle of Mons Graupius defeated the massed tribes of the Caledonians, as the Romans called the northern Picts. He went on to build a series of forts in southern Scotland between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, and this line formed the Roman frontier. Agricola also established a naval base at Dover for a new British fleet, sent an expedition to northern Scotland that rounded the north coast and visited the Orkneys, and may even have contemplated invading Hibernia–the Roman name for Ireland.

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Agricola was in Britain for only ten years, before being recalled inAD84 by the jealous and cruel emperor Domitian who feared that the great governor might be about to make a bid for the imperial throne. Agricola did much to reconcile the Britons to their fate as a Roman province. He kept a weather eye open for rebellion but did not humiliate the tribes. The southern garrison towns of Roman Britain became centres of enlightenment and improvement for the British. The warlike Celts were transformed into Roman citizens who took pride in wearing the toga, as Agricola’s son-in-law Tacitus reported with some surprise. Agricola destroyed enmity from within. He deliberately took the sons of British chiefs and educated them in the Roman curriculum, the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logical argument) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), the classical liberal arts. This upbringing, and the adoption of the Roman language, created a new generation of Britons tied to Rome by invisible but unbreakable bonds.

Agricola made a point of using members of this elite in the Roman civil service as administrators, for he admired what he considered to be the Britons’ naturally fearless character. Once trained he believed they made better civil-servant material than the more servile Gauls. He thus created what amounted to a fifth column in Britain among the wealthier classes. The new southern Romano-Britons’ loyalty was to Rome only. They delighted in the new Roman way of life. Agricola had a governor’s palace and basilica built in London and during his period as governor the grand Roman palace known as Fishbourne was built.

The Roman concept of the market place or forum encouraged trade to flourish in the new towns Agricola built. A spate of building produced Exeter, Lincoln, Cirencester and St Albans, with their public baths, amphitheatres and forums after the Roman fashion. Noble stone and marble façades enclosed splendid courts of justice where the written Roman law was consulted and measured out. It was an entirely different experience from being tried in a forest glade by Druids. Roman law relied on knowledge of what had been done in the past, a much quicker and fairer way to reach decisions.

Wealth began to flow into Britain as the Romans oversaw the export of lead and tin, which the country had in abundance–particularly in the south-west. Classical observers like Tacitus were dismayed by the ease with which the ancient Britons took to a grander lifestyle, for they had admired their primitive vigour which compared so favourably to the decadence of imperial Rome. As the new Roman Britons of the south gloried in the modern conveniences such as public baths, it was lucky for them that Agricola remained alert for trouble, for the British tribes of the north and west were a constant threat.

Agricola had had a profound effect on Britain. In the south-east the country became very similar to the rest of the Roman Empire, with Latin as the official written and spoken language. Much of the population learned to read and write, as education was highly valued by the Romans.

The landscape too was transformed, as dark, thickly wooded oak forests near which lurked the Celts’ small damp wood-and-wicker huts gave way to great clearings and plains. Here magnificent towns were built, busy with the commerce made easy by the laying of swift, straight roads, for the Roman system of government was essentially municipal. In the towns or just outside them were the elegant stone villas in which lived the wealthy Britons who were allowed to hold public office and be magistrates or senators. Their homes, which had running water brought to them by pipe and aqueduct, were heated by hypocausts and their walls were decorated with coloured frescoes, of the kind that can be seen at Pompeii. These leading Britons organized the raising of taxes to be sent back to the imperial coffers in Rome, and slaves and freedmen worked for them in the fields outside the cities, growing crops and tending sheep to produce the delicate Roman wool.

It was the Romans’ policy to allow the countries they conquered to worship their own deities, although they would not tolerate the ancient Britons’ practice of human sacrifice. The Celts’ religion was pantheistic–that is, they saw gods or spirits everywhere, in streams and trees and so on. Over time their shrines came to merge with those to Roman deities. At Bath, where the Roman baths survive as grandly as they did 2,000 years ago, the shrine to Minerva was erected on the site of an ancient Celtic shrine. Something similar happened with aspects of the Britons’ civic organization. Outside the Roman towns the councils of the old Celtic tribes like the Silures and Atrebates were adapted so that they could continue almost like local councils of the imperial administration.

Many of the English names of the months date from the Roman occupation. January derives from Janus, the two-faced deity who looks backwards and forwards to the past and coming year, and who was actually adopted by the Romans from the Egyptians. March comes from Mars the God of War, July from Julius Caesar and August from his nephew Augustus, another great emperor for whom the Latin poet Virgil wrote theAeneid. Although the later Anglo-Saxon invasions meant that the names of Anglo-Saxon gods were applied to several days of the week, much that is of Roman origin remains. Many British customs and sayings derive from the Roman occupation: several wedding customs, including the wedding cake, the ring, bridesmaids and pages and the bride’s veil are Roman. So are a number of our funeral customs, including putting flowers on the grave. The cypress and yew trees we plant in graveyards were the trees of mourning in Rome. The Romans said the Latin for ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezed–even the emperors used it. They also believed that your ears burned if somebody was talking about you; and the shriek of the screech owl in Rome was always considered a sound of ill omen.

Despite the complete Romanization of southern Britain it was never possible to regard the whole province as a secure Roman possession because of the constant rebellions in the north and Scotland. The province would always require a garrison of 50,000 soldiers to hold it–three legions plus auxiliaries were permanently stationed there. So skilled at warfare were the British tribes that at times 10 per cent of the empire’s entire army was employed in Britain.

All British Roman towns (the major ones being Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester, York and St Albans) were built with walls to keep out the barbarian tribes, especially in Wales. Though nominally conquered, the British continued to attack the Roman centres. This was quite unlike Gaul, where walled towns were the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, in contrast to Britain, Gaul was so completely Romanized that the old Celtic tongues died out except in Brittany, and were replaced by Latin–which accounts for the greater number of Latin words in the French vocabulary. In Britain the Celtic tongue lived on in Wales and Cornwall, and in the countryside outside the Roman towns and cities.

Despite Agricola’s brilliance he never really conquered Scotland, and nor did the Roman rulers who came after him. ByAD87 Rome had conceded that Agricola’s plan to hold southern Scotland up to the Tay was impracticable, so the fortress Agricola had built on that river for the Twentieth Legion was abandoned and the Roman legions pulled back to Agricola’s Forth–Clyde frontier. But even that was gradually regarded as too ambitious and the slow withdrawal of the Roman legions from Scotland continued. It was the especially dangerous attack of the combined forces of the Brigantes and Picts on the Ninth Legion at York inAD118 that decided the realistic Emperor Hadrian not only that the frontier of Roman Britain had to be placed much further south, but that it had to be of the most formidable kind. Hadrian’s solution was an immense defensive wall, eight foot broad and twelve foot high, dotted at every Roman mile with a fort containing Roman soldiers: it would run through Cumbria and southern Northumberland between the Solway Firth and the Tyne.

In the following centuries three Roman emperors tramped up to Scotland to attempt to extend Roman rule further north in the troublesome province of Britain, in an attempt to bring credit to themselves and to enhance their political power. But though the emperor Antoninus Pius would build a turf and clay wall inAD140 between Agricola’s forts (the Antonine Wall), the real boundary of Roman Britain remained the extraordinary feat of engineering begun on Hadrian’s orders when he visited Britain in 122.

Unlike other emperors, Hadrian was not grandiose; he thought Rome would do better by limiting her power rather than expanding it. For over thirty years the great wall he had designed was slowly built–eighty miles long, bristling with military lookout towers and, at greater intervals, large forts with their own shops, military hospitals and temples, much of which can still be walked along today. Until Christianity became compulsory in the early fourth century throughout the empire, the soldiers on the wall and in their forts at York (Eboracum), Caerleon (Isca Silurum) and Chester (Deva) had their own religion: they worshipped an eastern deity from Persia named Mithras in the bowels of the earth whose rites were secret. Hadrian also built a fort at London.

If Hadrian’s Wall is the largest and most visible of the surviving symbols of the Roman occupation of Britain, the second must be the famous Roman roads. They were built 2,000 years ago to link garrison with garrison, enabling help to be brought swiftly to the legions at York, Caerleon and Chester. Watling Street ran from Dover (Dubrae) to London and then via St Albans to Wroxeter (Viroconium) on the Welsh border. Although a branch was pushed south to Caerleon just north of Newport, and another branch carried on east to Carnarvon, the principal road continued north to Chester and then crossed over to York. Ermine Street was the road stretching down the eastern side of Britain from York to Lincoln (Lindum) and then to Colchester and on to London. The Fosse Way ran from Lincoln to Exeter (or Isca Dumniorum–the Dumnia were the local Celtic tribe), crossing Watling Street on its way.

Thanks to the Romans, Britain grew rich as her citizens benefited from an economy based on bronze and gold coinage. A rubbish pit uncovered beneath the City of London’s pavement suggests a wealthy and sophisticated populace who walked in elaborate sandals and enjoyed a delicately coloured pottery. Merchants now reckoned their sums on wax tablets with bone and wooden styluses, and bobbins for weaving show that Britons now rejoiced in the art of producing fine patterned linen. Britain also embarked on greater cultivation, aided by the crooked plough, and the Romans drained the marshes of East Anglia. Britain became one of the best sources of corn in the empire, with her own special warehouses in Rome. By the fourth century the emperor Julian had built warehouses in the rest of his empire to receive British wheat. British tin and iron ore, which the Iron Age Celts had done well by, became extremely profitable for the Roman Empire. In fact there is good reason to believe that the third largest imperial ironworks was in the eastern part of the Weald at Battle near Hastings. To this day the shape of its vast slagheap of iron waste from the iron industry which served the Roman fleet in Britain can be seen buried under the grass and trees which have grown over it during the past twenty centuries. A magnificently preserved Roman bath for naval officers has been discovered beside it in the grounds of the Beauport Park estate, its changing room amazingly still furnished with rare examples of ‘lockers’, of which only four others have survived from the old Roman Empire.

For 200 years Britain was ruled strongly from Rome. But, as the third centuryADwore on, the leadership in Rome became complacent and allowed territories to slip out of their control. Local commanders of distant provinces given too much independence began to think of carving their own kingdoms out of the empire. Britain’s distance from Rome made her attractive to such adventurers. Thus in 287 a Roman admiral named Carausius, who had been sent to clear Saxon pirates out of the English Channel, seized power in Britain. With the support of the Roman garrisons there he proclaimed himself emperor. Carausius had embarked on the conquest of northern Gaul when he was assassinated in 293. His murderer was his chief subordinate, Allectus. Allectus ruled Britain until 296 when he in his turn was killed by Constantius I, the warrior father of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who rushed from Rome to liberate a besieged London from Allectus and his Frankish mercenaries.

Constantius I’s title was the Caesar of the West. This position had been invented as part of the Emperor Diocletian’s reforms to bring stability back to the empire and so see off rebellious military leaders as well as the invading German tribes from the east. Recognizing that extensive changes were needed if the empire was to continue, Diocletian brought in a system of two emperors, the ‘Augusti’, and two ‘Caesars’, or junior emperors, who automatically became emperors on the death of the Augusti. These four rulers divided the eastern and western empires between them. Countries within the empire were now called dioceses, ruled by vicars. Britain herself became a diocese, consisting of four provinces, though it was only part of a much larger unit known as the Praetorian Prefecture of the Gauls.

Constantius after duly succeeding as Augustus marched from York to Tayside on a campaign against the Picts and Caledonians. But he died at York, and there famously his son, the half-English Constantine, was proclaimed emperor by the legions in 306. Constantine was one of the most important Roman emperors, whose espousal of Christianity in 313 changed the nature of the Roman Empire and of the European world. Constantine believed that the Christian God, who had appeared to him in a vision and told his soldiers to wear crosses on their shields, had given him victory at the famous battle of Milvian Bridge which had reunited the empire. Constantine shifted the empire’s capital to the ‘Christian Rome’, the new city he built at Constantinople, and made Christianity the state religion, believing it would be a unifying force in the empire. The wealth the pagan temples had accumulated for centuries became the property of the Christian Church, which itself became an important pillar of the Roman Empire’s organization. In addition, Constantine gave local bishops judicial powers above the local magistrate.

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Though Constantine continued also to worship the sun, he had been brought up a Christian by his English mother Helena. At the beginning of the fourth century members of the small but charismatic Christian sect who had renounced earthly power and riches in favour of heavenly ones were being horribly persecuted by Diocletian, for he believed that the troubles of the empire were due to neglect of the ancient gods like Jupiter and Minerva. Britain had become a safe haven for fleeing Christians, because its ruler Constantius was married to a Christian and had some sympathy for their beliefs. Although Constantius demolished the British churches, or basilicas as they were called, he did not execute their devotees. Even so, Britain had three early Christian martyrs, St Julian, St Aaron and St Alban. Especially well known was the wealthy Romano-British youth St Alban from Verulamium in Hertfordshire, who was executed in 305 for sheltering a Christian priest and refusing to sacrifice to the ancient gods. Verulamium took the name St Albans in his honour.

By the time that Constantine was taking a personal interest in deciding doctrine there were already enough Christians in Britain to send three bishops to the Council of the Church in 314 at Arles. The Britons had their home-grown version of heresy in Pelagianism: the British thinker Pelagius had boldly disputed with the great African Church Father St Augustine of Hippo, and had insisted that the doctrine of original sin was mistaken. The Scots and Irish Churches sprang from the work of two Romano-British Christian saints: St Patrick, who famously converted Ireland to Christianity and who had created the papal see of Armagh by 450, and St Ninian, the north-countryman who began the conversion of the Caledonians and Picts in the early fifth century.

Yet, although the Romano-British Church produced some very great missionaries, Roman Christianity had shallow roots in England. Celtic deities continued to be worshipped alongside Christ. To some extent Christianity probably depended on the personal beliefs of individual lords of the great villas characteristic of Britain in the fourth century. There are surviving examples of the chi-rho Christian sign in mosaics, wall paintings and silver cutlery of such wealthy villa-owners in this period, notably in Dorset. The heathen Saxons, even now priming themselves on the other side of the North Sea to invade Britain, would succeed in almost completely erasing Christianity from England. Only in Cornwall and Wales, where pockets of Christian Romano-Celts hid themselves away from the invaders, did Christianity survive. By the seventh century, after 150 years of Saxon settlements, England herself would have to be converted anew to Christianity by Roman, Scottish and Irish missionaries.

For by the first decade of the fifth century, most of Britain’s protectors against the Pictish and Saxon threat, the Roman legions, had either been withdrawn or were in the process of being withdrawn to defend Rome against the German tribes. In 402 the Visigoths under Alaric had entered Italy. Despite the structural reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Roman Empire was no longer in command of its frontiers. It had been gravely weakened by civil war between Constantine’s sons, but the chief danger facing it in the fourth century was a demographic phenomenon: the barbarian migrations or folk wanderings of the land-hungry German tribes. These aggressive military people from east of the River Danube in central Europe–the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals, the Alans, the Suevi, the Alemanni–had begun putting unbearable pressure on the outer Roman territories a hundred years before. In the mid-third century they had breached the Roman Empire’s frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube and had been thrown back only by Diocletian’s reforms.

After 375 when they were defeated in Russia by the terrifying Huns, a savage tribe from central Asia also on the move west, the alarmed German tribes would no longer brook the imperial government’s refusal to let them in. In 376 the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, who lived on the eastern side of the Danube, begged the Emperor Valens to give them sanctuary by allowing them to cross the Danube and be federated within the Roman Empire. In return for land and sanctuary against the Huns, they said they would serve in the imperial armies. Though their subsequent slaughter of Valens two years later at Adrianople was a grim portent, the imperial government recognized that the pressure of the German tribes was such that it was best to have some of them on its side. Treaties were made and land was granted, some of it in north Gaul.

In 402 Rome decided to pull more soldiers out of Britain and bring them home. They were needed in Italy to defend the imperial city against the barbarian Visigoths under Alaric who were now encamped in the north of the country. If many more Roman soldiers were withdrawn the Britons would be completely at the mercy of their own enemies who were attacking with renewed vigour: the Picts from beyond the now scantily defended Wall in the north, the Scots from Hibernia, attacking Galloway, Wales and Cornwall, and the Saxons from across the North Sea, a northern branch of the German tribes putting such pressure on the Roman Empire.

Since the third century the more daring members of the population of what we now call north Germany and Denmark had been forming raiding parties to cross the North Sea and the Channel to Britain in ever larger numbers. By then the Roman army in Britain increasingly contained Gauls and Germans, Spaniards and Moors, and it seems that the little groups of Saxon ex-soldiers settling in Britain attracted by the good farmland and clement weather reported back to their relatives that here was a country ripe for the plucking.

By now Britain felt very remote from the imperial government, a remoteness which was emphasized by her being part of the Gallic Prefecture. Britain thus became a magnet for imperial pretenders, not least Magnus Maximus, one of the Emperor Theodosius’ generals, who after a victory over the Picts was proclaimed emperor by his legions and successfully became ruler of the Praetorian Prefecture of Britain, Gaul and Spain until 387. Pretenders were welcomed by the vulnerable British if they seemed likely to protect them from their own barbarian enemies better than their Roman overlords.

It was under the British imperial pretender Constantine III that Britain severed her links with Rome for good. Constantine III had been elevated to the emperorship by the army in Britain on account of widespread dissatisfaction with the way the province was being treated by Rome. Since 402 Rome had not even paid the salaries of the imperial troops or civil servants remaining in Britain. But by 406, the year the barbarians crossed the Rhine, Rome had no time to think about Britain: she was concentrating on defending her homeland. As with many of her more distant provinces, the imperial government may no longer have been able to afford the wages, or perhaps the chaos arising from the war against the barbarians prevented the money being shipped to Britain. Whatever the reason, this failure greatly angered the local magnates and the wealthier classes of Britain on whose shoulders the fiscal burden now fell. Constantine III, who had invaded Gaul and Spain, was at first allowed to retain his north-western empire by the Emperor of the West, Honorius. But his yen for external conquest meant that his soldiers were not stationed in Britain to ward off the newly vigorous attacks by the Irish, Saxons and Picts. Infuriated by Constantine remaining in Spain when he was needed at home, it seems that in 409 British leaders expelled the last remnants of his purportedly imperial administration.

But the feeling was mutual. In 410 the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Goths obliged Rome for the moment at least to wash her hands of the distant province. Honorius sent a formal letter to the British cities telling them that they could no longer depend on the Romans for their defence against the Picts. Henceforth they must rely on themselves. Citizens should now carry weapons, which hitherto had been forbidden. Local British rulers sprang into existence to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the imperial administration.

At first this was a relief. The British magnates had loathed the regulations requiring conscription into the Roman army, brought in recently to make up for the lack of slaves as the empire ceased to expand by conquest. Conscription drew on their own source of labour and robbed their fields of men just when they were needed for the harvest. They were delighted that they no longer had to pay the heavy Roman taxes that the enormous bureaucracy of the top-heavy imperial government needed if it was to maintain itself. Contemporary historians write of how the British people threw off all Roman customs and Roman law. To begin with they were happy to rely on Saxon mercenaries for all defensive purposes where previously they had used the Roman legions. They would soon learn, as the Romans had, that it was better not to place yourself in the power of the barbarians unless you had time to train them to adopt your habits and customs.

The Roman style of life continued among quite a few of the British magnates and well-to-do townspeople for a couple of decades after the withdrawal of the legions. In 429 St Germanus, on a visit to Britain with other bishops to dispute the Pelagian controversy, encountered a wealthy society which still had all the hallmarks of Roman civilization: its members were richly dressed and highly educated and could speak Latin. St Patrick, who died in 461, came from one of these landowning families.

But, despite the British people’s Roman habits, the dissolution of the empire was changing their way of life even before they were assaulted by the Anglo-Saxons, reliance upon whose arms was storing up a terrible fate for them. As the empire was replaced worldwide by individual German territories, its sophisticated global economy and long-distance trade based on a 400-year-old Roman peace slowly came to an end. By the 420s coinage was starting to die out in Britain. Within a generation in many places Roman cemeteries like the one at Poundbury in Dorset had become deserted. Roman laws requiring burial outside the town walls for health reasons were no longer obeyed because there were no longer Roman officials to enforce them. Furthermore the trade and employment in the cities that the Roman legions and civil government had brought to Britain had gone. Without large numbers of soldiers needing goods and services, towns declined. Without a central taxation system, many of the allurements of Roman civilization, like roads, baths and government, simply fell away. The famous pottery factories, which gave so much employment because the Romans used pots the way we use plastic bags, as containers and transporters for every kind of commodity, vanished–and so did the art of making glass.

Within thirty years the combined effect of the attacks by the Saxons and the decay of towns meant that the inhabitants of Britain were soon living in a far more primitive fashion than their grandparents had. But the decline of sophistication caused by the deterioration of the global economy was a fact throughout the Roman world. In Britain and other former Roman provinces trade became local and was reduced to barter. By 481 there would no longer be a Roman emperor in the west. Rome had been sacked for a second time and Rome herself would be controlled by the eastern tribe, the Ostrogoths. The Roman Empire which had ruled the whole of the Mediterranean and had ranged from Britain in the west to Romania (hence the name of that country and her Latin language) in the east had shrunk to Constantinople and some surrounding lands. On the continent in the empire’s place various tribes ruled: the Ostrogoths (east Goths) in Italy, the Franks and Burgundians in north and middle Gaul, the Visigoths (west Goths) in southern Gaul and Spain, the Vandals in north Africa.

It was in about 447 that the former Roman province of Britannia, already adrift from Rome, began to experience her own concerted attack by the Teutonic tribes of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons. Although this was an era for which contemporary written sources do not exist (that is why it has been called the Dark Ages), there is evidence to suggest that the beginning of this great invasion was sparked off by an ambitious British tyrant. After the Roman fashion he imported Germanic tribesmen in the 430s to act as mercenaries against his fellow British kings and to protect his territory against the Picts, who had become increasingly troublesome ever since the legions deserted their positions along the Wall. As a reward for the Saxon mercenaries’ services this British king–whom England’s first historian, the great eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk the Venerable Bede, said was called Vortigern–seems to have encouraged them to settle on land of his in Kent and near London. But a combination of rising sea levels along the north German coast, reports of the fertile lowlands and mild weather in England compared to their cold climate and the obvious inability of the Britons to defend themselves meant Vortigern and his fellow Britons got more than they bargained for. The chief deities of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons were Woden the God of War and Thor the God of Thunder–in other words, they were fierce warrior peoples for whom glory was to be won by fighting, not by building towns.

Beginning round mid-century, waves of Germanic tribesmen moved over the next fifty years to Britain in such numbers that they pushed the Romano-British out of their native lands into the west. Instead of being content with their own small kingdom, these Saxons under their dynamic leaders–whom legend names Hengist and Horsa–turned on their British host when he refused to increase their holdings and murdered him. They started seizing more areas of England for themselves, beginning with Thanet and Kent, then moving west to the Isle of Wight and east Hampshire. Coastal south-east Britain would become known as Sussex, the land of the South Saxons. By 527 a new wave of Saxons had gone east of London and called the land they settled the country of the East Saxons–Essex. Meanwhile the Angles, whose own country lay so nearly opposite across the North Sea, seized what would become known as the country of the East Angles, or East Anglia.

The British Romano-Celts took shelter in the south-west in the old territories of the Ordovices and Silures which the Angles and Saxons called Wales, meaning land of the foreigner. Some went north to the three British kingdoms established above Hadrian’s Wall around 400–Strathclyde, Gododdin and Galloway. As early as 460, after ten years of bitter fighting, the Anglo-Saxon force had slaughtered many of the Romano-British, sacked the main cities and taken over much of the south and east of the country. By 495 the first part of the English settlement was completed and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms reached as far north as York and as far west as Southampton.

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History tends to be the story of the successful, but for two centuries the Anglo-Saxon conquerors were incapable of recording their actions. The fair-haired, pale-eyed Angles, Saxons and Jutes were illiterate north German tribespeople from the neck of the harsh windswept Cimbrian peninsula, the modern-day Denmark, Schleswig and Holstein. Unlike the Germanic peoples taking over the territories of the former Roman Empire in France and Italy, most of these bloodthirsty invaders of Britain had never felt its civilizing influence: though a number of Saxons from the German Bremerhaven coast were to be found in the Roman armies, more of them were pirates and enemies of the empire. These peoples’ remote northerly geographical position (Jutland is on the same parallel of latitude as Aberdeen in northern Scotland) ensured that most of them had escaped contact with the Roman Empire, which had educated their fellow Teutonic tribes from further south.

Moreover, the Teutonic tribes such as the Burgundians, Visigoths, Vandals and Franks, had been deeply affected by Roman civilization when they had settled within the empire. As their power grew and that of the empire weakened, the civil administration of the Roman government on the continent tended to remain in place and was taken over wholesale by the new rulers. In Britain, on the other hand, the expulsion of the Roman government left no proper central political or economic structures for the Saxons to adopt. The wild Germanic tribes arriving in Britain were quite unaffected by the already withering Roman civilization they encountered. In addition, the transition to Anglo-Saxon rule was brutal, bloody and sudden. Most of England would be depopulated or her inhabitants slaughtered or subdued, so no classical influences modified the Anglo-Saxons’ savage ways. In Britain there was no time for a considered handover. The small individual kingdoms of Saxons established their own unadulterated institutions.

We do not know how the Romano-British reacted to the German peoples setting up homes at such bewildering speed on their fertile lands in the south and east while many were even forced to live in caves in Wales or Cornwall. The few contemporary references are mainly glancing asides by foreign historians, like the sixth-century Byzantine writer Procopius. For the most part, therefore, English history of this very early period has to be deciphered from the physical evidence of settlements unearthed by archaeology and from references to ancient practices preserved in the Anglo-Saxon laws which began being written down in the seventh century. It can be augmented by hearsay and folk tales handed down over the centuries, and sought out by the Venerable Bede. It was only with the reconversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth century that learning returned to England, though it had meanwhile continued in Wales and Cornwall. Anglo-Saxon monks and priests then began writing down accounts of life in their new country which would be collected in the late ninth century as their official record,The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The nearest Briton we have as an eyewitness of the horrors his country endured at the hands of the pagan Anglo-Saxons is the mid-sixth-century Romano-British monk Gildas, who recounted the story in his bookOf the Destruction of the British. But even he is writing a hundred years after the first Anglo-Saxon invasion.

By about 460, the deRomanization of Britain had become very noticeable to contemporaries abroad. Much of the country had been entirely taken over by the Saxon tribes, and all feared the worst for its former inhabitants. Some of the British community still considered themselves Roman enough in the late 440s to send a plea for help to the ruler of what remained of the Roman Empire, the great general Aetius, who was trying to keep Attila the Hun and his horde out of Gaul. They headed their letter to him, ‘The Groans of the British’. ‘The Barbarians drive us to the sea,’ they wailed; ‘the sea throws us back on the Barbarians: thus two modes of death await us; we are either slain or drowned.’ But Aetius had too much to handle nearer home to think of Britain. It was not until 451 at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains that he was able to halt Attila decisively and drive the Huns out of France. One Roman who did return to help was St Germanus, who led the Britons in battle and told them to shout ‘Alleluia!’ as they fought the enemy. But it was not enough.

Under the onslaught of the Germanic tribes the only hope for the Romano-British was to abandon their villas and their cities. As the Saxons set fire to their houses and murdered those who fled, some Roman Britons buried their family silver beneath their cellars, thinking that one day when the invaders had been expelled they would be able to come back for it. Some of that silver may now be seen in the British Museum, having been found centuries later, for its original owners never returned. The solid Roman British citizens, able to dispute legal points with the best lawyers in Rome, were forced to take refuge behind the palisades of the ancient hill forts which their far-off primitive ancestors had built in the Iron Age 400 years before. Now they had to refortify them with timber as so few of them knew how to work stone, thanks to the rapid decline in the art of Roman stonemasonry.

Everywhere fanatical barbarians with their manes of long hair–a mark of their warrior caste–fell on the British and put them to the sword. Invoking the names of Thor and Woden, whose ravens fed on human blood, they went on the rampage. Priests, women and children were all horribly murdered, often before the very altars where they had sought sanctuary. So many were killed that there were not enough people left to bury them. Those making for the Welsh hills were butchered in heaps, and even those who surrendered had no guarantee of mercy. Thus in the first years of the Saxon invasion the old population of England was very nearly destroyed.

Many fled to the British colony of Armorica in Gaul, which had been established at the time of the pretender Magnus Maximus in the late fourth century. They found some comfort in a country by the sea which so nearly resembled the one they had left behind. So many Romano-British made their home in Armorican Gaul, and so powerful were they, that to this day their descendants speak a version of the ancient British tongue–and that piece of France, Brittany, is still named after them. Britannia, the name of the Roman province, disappeared from people’s lips and was replaced by the word England, as in Angle-land, until the anglicized name Britain was revived in 1707 to describe the union between England, Scotland and Wales.

Writing a century after the first invasions, Gildas would note that all the Roman cities remained abandoned: ‘our cities are still not occupied as they were; even today they are dismal and deserted ruins’. Having become a literate people, highly educated by the Roman curriculum and trained to be clerks and administrators in the Romano-British towns, accustomed to underground central-heating systems, with glass in their windows and pavements at their feet, the Britons had lost the hardy spirit which Roman commentators had so admired. After 400 years of Roman occupation, the wild Celts whose ancestors had been those fierce, half-naked charioteers had been replaced by courteous Latin-speaking Roman settlers. As Romano-Celts worshipping the gentle God of the Christians who abhorred violence, they were helpless against the Angles and Saxons.

Fortunately two outstanding leaders appeared on the scene to transform the British into an army of resistance between the first onslaught of the Anglo-Saxons and the end of the century. The first was a high-born Roman, perhaps an ex-general, called Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom Gildas calls ‘a modest man who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period left alive’. The second, a Romano-Celtic leader who arose in the west in the late fifth century after the Saxons had been in Britain for a generation, and who may have been Aurelianus’ son, managed to hold the Saxon foe at bay for thirty years. He pushed the West Saxons back out of Dorset into the middle of Wiltshire in a series of clashes culminating in the critical Battle of Mons Badonicus (which may now be marked by the town of Liddington) in about 500 or 516. This leader, whose beginning and end are wreathed in fantastic mystery, and whose tomb has never been found, is believed to have kept the west a separate British kingdom until a new wave of Saxons in about 550 finally completed the takeover of England. He may have been the original of the great Celtic leader now known as King Arthur, about whom by the ninth century very many stories were circulating, and he may have lived in the large Iron Age fort at South Cadbury in Somerset, which was heavily refortified during the fifth and sixth centuries (remains of its kingly hall have been found).

What can be said for sure is that the myths and legends which have inspired the writers and poets ever since cluster the most thickly in those parts of Britain which became the refuge of the fleeing southern British–that is, in Cornwall and Wales. The tales are curiously uniform in suggesting that King Arthur is not dead but merely sleeping, perhaps in a cave in Wales, perhaps in the fairy isles of Avalon, and would one day awaken to help Britain in her darkest hour. Apart from their obvious Christian symbolism, they imply that the Romano-British Celts were a desperate but not yet despairing people who believed that they would one day return to their homes. But it was not to be.

Thanks to the victories of the Romano-Celt ‘Arthur’ there was peace for about fifty years from Mons Badonicus until the mid-sixth century–we know that because Gildas was writing in a time of peace. But only ten years later, in about 550, a new invasion of the Saxons began, so that by the end of the sixth century Saxon kingdoms were permanently established throughout most of England up to the Scottish Lowlands. Two tribes of Angles colonized eastern England from the Humber northwards. The southern kingdom called Deira approximated to Yorkshire; north of it stretched the kingdom of Bernicia, which ran from the Tees to the Firth of Forth. By the early seventh century Bernicia and Deira had been combined in the kingdom of Northumbria. Below spread the kingdom of the middle English or Mercians, which ran from the northern border of Wales in the west to the kingdom of the Angles in the east. At its foot began the kingdom of Wessex or the West Saxons, which, thanks to the valour of its chieftain Ceawlin, by the early seventh century reached as far as the lower Severn. Only Wales and the west country held out against the Saxons, Cornwall resisting until the mid-ninth century. Meanwhile in the north the Irish tribes had taken advantage of the Roman absence to establish a kingdom of Scots to the west of the Picts above the northern Roman provinces. Thanks to the impact St Patrick had made upon Ireland, in 563 a monk from one of the monasteries he had founded there, St Columba, would finish the work of St Ninian, converting the Scots and Picts to Christianity from his island of Iona off the west Highland coast.

In Wales, Cornwall and Ireland the Christian Celtic Church preserved some of the classical habits. Thanks to the Church and the education perpetuated by the new monasteries, writing in Latin continued and manuscripts were copied for wider circulation. But, burning with hatred for their oppressors, the Romano-British kept themselves to themselves and refused to have anything to do with converting their Anglo-Saxon neighbours to Christianity. Its civilizing influence would have to come from abroad. Fortunately for the future of England the Angles and Saxons were not to remain in a state of savagery for long.

In the last years of the sixth century, it is said (this is reported as a national tradition by Bede in the eighth century), the powerful new pope Gregory the Great was reminded of the lost Roman Christian province of Britannia when he saw some handsome slave children, blond and blue-eyed, in the market at Rome. On asking who they were and being told they were Angli or Angles, the pope is said to have remarked thoughtfully, ‘Non Angli sed angeli’ (Not Angles but angels). What is certainly true is that in 597 Pope Gregory, who was breathing new life into the papacy, despatched a slightly reluctant mission to convert King Ethelbert of Kent to Christianity. The pope suspected his legate Bishop Augustine might obtain a hearing because the king was married to a Christian Frank, the former Princess Bertha. Thus began the reconversion of England to Christianity and the country’s return to a higher form of civilization. It would bring England back into the fold of a Europe where for the next thousand years a common religious culture called Christendom took the place of the Roman Empire, unifying the whole.

ANGLO-SAXON Ethelbert of Kent to the Viking Invasions (597–865) 

When the papal mission arrived on the Island of Thanet in 597, its leader St Augustine was extremely nervous about meeting the Saxons. If King Ethelbert of Kent resembled any of the other German barbarians such as King Clovis of Gaul, his wife’s grandfather, he would be a fierce, soldierly type. King Clovis had said that if he had been present at Christ’s crucifixion he would have avenged it, which was rather missing the point. Despite Augustine’s fears Pope Gregory was insistent in a series of letters that the mission be accomplished. At the end of the sixth century Ethelbert was the most important king, the bretwalda, of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into which England was divided. If Ethelbert’s country was converted to Christianity he might influence the other kingdoms to copy him.

King Ethelbert lived up to expectations. Though the small group of forty travel-weary monks were unarmed and wearing homespun brown habits bearing before them a silver cross of the suffering Christ, he treated them as if they were wizards or magicians. He insisted on meeting them in the open air where their magic would be less potent to prevent them casting spells, and he would not allow them to leave the island. However, one of the conditions of King Ethelbert allying himself to the powerful royal house of the Franks had been that his wife Queen Bertha was to be allowed to practise her religion. So, living among the worshippers of Woden and Thor, she did not forget her faith. An old Roman church to St Martin was still standing on the eastern side of the king’s capital of Canterbury, and there she and her spiritual adviser Bishop Luidhard were allowed to pray.

After a while, having observed that the monks, who had brought him a richly decorated Bible and jewels from the pope, were quiet and well behaved, King Ethelbert allowed them off the island to worship in the queen’s church. Soon Ethelbert would be so impressed by their preaching of a future eternal life at a time when even a king could do little against illness, by their reading and writing and by their care of the poor, that he himself was baptized. By the end of the year, 10,000 of his people had been baptized as well.

Under the influence of the Roman missionaries, who received regular advice in letters from Pope Gregory, for the first time in the England of the Anglo-Saxons a code of laws was written down in 616. But this time it was in English, not Latin. Unlike the Romano-British the Anglo-Saxons could understand only their own language. These first English laws of Ethelbert’s, which were much influenced by the Franks, protected the new clergy and the land the king donated to them for church-building. By the end of the seventh century the churches would be free of taxation. Augustine built the monastery of St Augustine (which became the burial place of the early Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent), as well as founding the church that became Canterbury Cathedral. In the monastery the letters from Pope Gregory would be preserved, as well as other precious written materials. The Roman missionaries built further monasteries, which developed into centres of learning for the people of Kent. A fashion developed for wealthy noblemen to have their sons taught to read and write in monasteries for whose foundation they gave money and land. In 602 the pope created the archbishopric of Canterbury for St Augustine.

Pope Gregory had intended there to be twin archbishoprics in England, at Canterbury and York, because he still thought of England as the Roman province–one of whose centres would be the important Roman city of Eboracum, or York. But York was now part of the kingdom of Deira, which was entirely separate from Kent even though Ethelbert’s lands stretched as far as Deira. York and its environs would therefore have to be converted separately, as would all the other kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England. Another bishopric was created in 604 at nearby Rochester, whose ‘chester’ or ‘ceaster’ suffix denotes in the Anglo-Saxon way an old Roman city; a further bishopric, for the East Saxons, was created the same year at the old settlement of Londinium, known to the Saxons as Lundenwig.

Though he knew that Ethelbert was the most important king in the country, Pope Gregory was unaware of the extent of the changes that had taken place in England since the departure of the Romans. As we have seen, England had long ago lost all vestiges of her Roman national administration. The country was now divided up into the separate lands of small tribal peoples who themselves were in the process of being subsumed by the more warlike kings. Thus the heads of the small tribes became underkings or what the Anglo-Saxons called ealdormen (the word for military leader) of the larger kingdoms. By the end of the seventh century there were seven kingdoms altogether, known as the heptarchy; they were Sussex, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Historians have to make educated guesses about these tribal peoples because they were not literate. But surviving references to ancient practices in later documents, literary fragments and law codes have brought them to the conclusion that the early Anglo-Saxons still shared many characteristics with their Germanic ancestors of the first centuryAD, characteristics which had been observed by Roman commentators.

The most important feature of the social organization of the Germanic peoples was the family, or to use an Old English word the kin. Loyalty to one’s kin was a key concept. The kin had an obligation to kill the murderer of one of their own. Even by the first century, however, this had been commuted to a money payment, the so-called wer-gild or price of a man (literally man-gold), which had the effect of making society more peaceful. If payment was not made, the custom was that the victim’s kin must either kill the perpetrator or be paid not to do so. In addition a man’s kin were expected to swear an oath to support him in court if he was accused of a crime. By the tenth century the kin was responsible for a criminal family member’s future behaviour. Over the centuries kings and their nobles, who began to take charge of the village courts, would accept the evidence of the community to balance the evidence of the kin when it came to establishing the facts about a crime. By the ninth century kings like Alfred the Great would be changing the law to make sure that duty to one’s lord took precedence over duty to one’s kin. But, with these shifts of emphasis, loyalty and the sacredness of oath-taking continued to form the bedrock of Anglo-Saxon society.

Most of the Angle and Saxon invaders settled in England in tribal groups of free peasants under separate leaders, not under one national king; over those separate peoples overlord kings and bigger kingdoms would arise. This can be seen by the many place names in England that end in ‘ing’, which means ‘people of’–thus Hastings signifies ‘the people of Haesta’ and Woking ‘the people of Wocca’. A famous tenth-century document drawn up for taxation purposes, the so-called Tribal Hideage, identifies many of these peoples and the amount of land they held in ‘hides’, the Old English unit of landholding and assessment for taxation. Depending on which kingdom you inhabited, a hide consisted of between 40 and 120 acres.

King Ethelbert’s law code reveals that the people of Kent were used to discussing local affairs in popular open-air assemblies under the direction of the more learned or wealthy. Since the late sixth century there seems to have been a tribal court for every hundred hides, about 4,000 acres or more. They were probably the origin of the ‘hundred’ courts to which there are documentary references by the tenth century. By then the courts of the hundred were held on a monthly basis to sort out breaches of the customary and Church law and to adjust taxes, reflecting the fact that all the English kingdoms were now divided into administrative units called hundreds. For many centuries the judges were chosen by the local people rather than by the king. In contrast to the Roman way of life, early on among these primitive Anglo-Saxon peoples there were genuinely democratic customs, even though they themselves had slaves.

A small class of nobles formed the wealthiest level of Kentish society, but the most numerous element in that kingdom at the end of the sixth century was the free peasant or ceorl (churl), whose rights were protected by law and whose immediate overlord was not a noble but the king himself. In Kent the ceorl was worth a hundred golden shillings to his family: that was the price of killing him, the wer-gild. The disruption caused by the ninth-century Viking invasions ruined many of these people, so that they had to labour for the local lord to pay the swingeing tax bill of Danegeld, or to pay for the protection of the lord’s soldiers when war threatened his home and crops. At the same time many Anglo-Saxons managed to cling to the financial autonomy of their distant ancestors, valuing the independence of mind it allowed.

The late-seventh-century laws of King Ine of Wessex give us further information about the western cousins of these men. They were required to serve in the fyrd, the Anglo-Saxon militia which was called out against national enemies at times of crisis; and there was a special law imposing heavy penalties on anyone who penetrated the hedge around another’s property when the fyrd was out. With their fellow villagers they had to support the king by paying a feorm–that is, an ancient royal food rent, originally a certain amount of ale, oxen, honey and loaves which was later commuted into a money rent or tax. With a contribution assessed by hideage, it seems that from the earliest times the Anglo-Saxons were expected to help build local bridges and walls and the king’s fortresses if called upon. By 700 the kings of the separate kingdoms of England each had their own council of wise men called the Witan. Members of the Witan, who tended to be the great landowners of the kingdom, witnessed the king’s acts of state, whether it was giving land to a noble, or declaring that a monastery need not pay rent. They could elect a king from a royal line if they chose, but their chief role was to advise him.

Just as they had settled England in tribes, the Anglo-Saxon peasants tended to live in small villages. Their fields were quite different from the rectangular ones of the Celtic Iron Age, being laid out in long curving strips. In some kingdoms some land was farmed in common, in strips scattered over open fields. In others, such as Kent, land was organized in a more self-contained way. All over England woods on the outskirts of villages tended to be held as common land where everyone could put their pigs, sheep and cows out to pasture.

These blond, big-boned Angles and Saxons had heavier, stronger ploughs than the ancient Britons, whose lighter ploughs had led them to prefer high ground and lighter soil. So the Anglo-Saxons were unafraid of the richer, heavier, alluvial valley soil of the midlands. Increasing numbers of them therefore began to spread along the Ouse towards the Tyne and Tees, enlarging the kingdoms of Mercia, Deira and Bernicia. By the early seventh century the latter two would be united by the powerful King Ethelfrith into the kingdom of Northumbria (the people north of the Humber).

The Anglo-Saxon peoples regarded the ruins of the vast Roman buildings they came upon with wonder. They were primitive builders themselves who could handle only wood and brick. The skills required to build the towering marble temples, the immense stone Roman baths, the aqueducts that littered England were so far beyond them that they could not believe they had been constructed by humans. ‘The work of giants’ is how their literature repeatedly describes Roman architecture. It used to be thought that the Anglo-Saxons avoided Roman cities because they believed superstitiously that they contained ghosts. But the latest research suggests that, while at first the Saxons and Angles may have preferred to carry away superior Roman bricks to build their own settlements, by the end of the seventh century the old Roman cities were beginning to attract a new population of Anglo-Saxon city-dwellers. These cities, such as York and London, never contained more than a few thousand people, as most Anglo-Saxons preferred to live in the country as farmers. However, the farmers would build a king’s hall, a royal manor or tun, which survives in the place names Wilton, Walton and Kingston. These edifices were impressive (if crude) wooden buildings which functioned as administrative centres and which had to be large enough to receive the local hundred when they brought their goods to support the king.

But the king’s hall, whether it was the home of a king’s ealdorman or the king himself, was also a warm cheerful place where mead was passed round in a horn from person to person at a vast log table, with a fire burning in the enormous hearth and clean green rushes on the floor to sweeten the air. Although most Anglo-Saxons had settled down to farm they still retained a folk memory of their ancestors, the north German warriors, which found expression in the vigorous songs which bards sang for them in the great hall, recounting the exploits of Beowulf for example.

Loyalty, revenge and death were some of the favourite themes of Anglo-Saxon literature, but perhaps most popular of all were poems about the loyalty between the king and his men, the devoted noblemen known as thanes. Like the bond between kin, the bond between a king and his bodyguard was sacred. It was a disgrace for a man to allow his lord to fall in battle without avenging him by his own death. The early history of England is full of heroic examples of thanes who refused to change sides even if their lord was dead, like those of the eighth-century King Cynewulf of Wessex who avenged his slaying by laying down their own lives.

As the seventh century dawned in England, outside Kent most of the country remained wedded to the heathen gods and pagan way of life. It would take men of tremendous conviction to woo them from the powerful deities after whom they had named many features of the landscape–Thundridge in Hertfordshire meant Thunor’s or Thor’s ridge, and so on. The Church would become one of the pillars on which the English kingdoms were built, the essence of the civilization of the middle ages. But the raw material the Church was battling with was rough, pagan and insensitive. The monks seeking to convert the Saxons to Christianity often had to adapt their prayers and stories to attract an audience which admired strength and found it hard to admire the Christian reverence for suffering.

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Nevertheless, thanks to the force and energy of Augustine’s Roman missionaries, and of other missionaries from Ireland and Scotland, within less than a century the Church had converted the whole of the savage country of England to Christianity. It would go on to transform the Anglo-Saxon people and their culture in an astonishing way. From bloodthirsty warriors, the Anglo-Saxons became a people whose sons learned to read and write Latin and thus had access to the knowledge of the ancients. For 150 years in England, from the 660s to the 820s, there was an extraordinary revival of learning in the new monasteries which swept rapidly over the country. It would reach its peak in seventh-century Northumbria, as seen in the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, and a scholarly and artistic renaissance would spread from England to the kingdom of the Franks. Links were created between the continent and England not seen since the early fifth century. After 300 years of constructing simple wooden dwellings, the Anglo-Saxons started to put up great numbers of elaborate churches and monasteries as it became socially prestigious to erect buildings to the glory of God. Thanks to French and Italian artists whom the late-seventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus brought to England, the Anglo-Saxons would be exposed to far more sophisticated workmanship than the wattle and daub of their native Denmark and northern Germany.

English buildings would become splendid again under the influence of the Christian Church with its links to a higher continental civilization. Streets began to be paved, and the floors of kings’ halls were made out of tiny pieces of decorative stone. Cloth of gold was the material once more seen on their interior walls, as it had been in the days of the Caesars. Glass-making would return to England after three centuries, thanks to the English Church’s strong links with Gaul, for the Gauls had kept that Roman art going. At the end of the seventh century, the warrior and nobleman Benedict Biscop would be the first person to import Gaulish glass-makers to the monastery he had founded at Jarrow on the Tyne. Glass, soon to be stained glass, appeared in church windows for the first time in Anglo-Saxon England.

But early English Christianity was a very fragile plant, dependent on the patronage of a strong ruler. After King Ethelbert of Kent died in 616, his son and successor Eadbald was so hostile to Christianity that Kent trembled on the edge of paganism again. Members of the Roman mission became so dispirited that many decided to quit Kent for France. According to tradition it was only because the Prince of Apostles, St Peter, appeared in a vision to one of their number, Bishop Laurentius, that they returned. In a rage St Peter set about the bishop, beating him ferociously, reminding him all the while of the parable of the Good Shepherd and insisting that he should not abandon his sheep to the infidel wolves. The next day Eadbald was so alarmed by the weals St Laurentius showed him that he reformed and the other bishops returned.

We would have little knowledge of the story of how the astonishing changes took place in the lives of the wild Anglo-Saxons were it not for the detective work of the eighth-century monk from the monastery at Jarrow who is always known as the Venerable Bede. This great writer, the father of English history and one of the most influential writers of the first millennium in Europe, was born about 670. His tomb may still be seen at Durham Cathedral. Bede made it his business to search out the facts as opposed to the myths and legends about the origins of the English people. He was hard working, scientifically rigorous and wide ranging in his investigations. Though he consulted eyewitnesses where he could, every piece of information he presented as a fact had to be backed up by documentary evidence, for which he scoured ancient documents in England as well as sending to the papal registers at Rome for information. He also perfected the system invented by Dionysius Exiguus of chronological dating, taking the birth of Christ as the beginning of modern time. Bede’s books became so famous throughout eighth-century Europe that owing to his influence the lettersAD(Anno Domini, ‘in the year of Our Lord’) were adopted for presenting dates everywhere.

The story of the transformation of England is set down in Bede’s bookThe Ecclesiastical History of the English People. From it derives the greater part of our knowledge of the fifth-century invasion and the sixth-, seventh-and eighth-century kingdoms of England. The next most important conversion of the peoples of England after Kent was that of the kingdom of the Northumbrians. Although the new Bretwalda of England on the death of Ethelbert was Raedwald, the King of East Anglia, it was owing to an exiled prince of the northern kingdom of Deira (modern Yorkshire) at Raedwald’s court, Edwin (the future founder of Northumbria), that the most influential movement of English Christianity began.

Though most early Anglo-Saxon kings are covered in obscurity, Raedwald is one about whom rather a lot is known. In the summer of 1939, just before the Second World War broke out, what is generally acknowledged to be his tomb was found on what was formerly the Suffolk coast at Sutton Hoo. The magnificent remains, which are thought to date from circa 621–30 and are now on display in the British Museum, further amplify our picture of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon rulers like Raedwald himself and his client Edwin of Northumbria. At the top of a hundred-foot headland, not unlike the funeral pyre of Beowulf, ‘high and broad and visible to those journeying the ocean’, was found a burial chamber made out of a ninety-foot longship, the kind of vessel in which Raedwald’s Angle ancestors had famously appeared.

What is especially interesting about Raedwald’s tomb is that it shows that there had been a revival of international trade in Europe, which for two centuries after the fall of the western Roman Empire had decayed to local barter. Raedwald’s helmet and armour were made in Sweden, while his drinking bowls were the product of Middle Eastern craftsmen. The many different kinds of foreign coin show what complicated and far-reaching trade Raedwald was involved in, taking in Constantinople and Alexandria.

Sutton Hoo also reveals that, despite Raedwald’s veneer of Christianity, his deepest beliefs were as pagan as those of Tutankhamun. For he was buried with quite as much grave furniture as any of the ancient Egyptians, with an enormous cauldron and an immense mead horn beautifully mounted in silver for drinking in the halls of Valhalla. Gold belt buckles weighing more than a pound each, with intricate designs of stylized hunting animals like falcons, indicate that there were brilliant smiths at work in seventh-century England who had developed the art of cloisonné to a peak it would be hard to reach today. But what is outstanding about this man is his appearance as a warrior. His wonderful iron helmet covered with a layer of bronze sculpted with fighting figures, with menacing slits for the eyes and flaps to protect the ears, could only strike fear in those who encountered him.

Edwin of Northumbria was a warrior of this kind too. In the seventh century, when most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were in a constant state of war, battling for territory, it could only be with the support of such a man that Christianity could become permanently established. With Raedwald’s help Edwin had defeated his enemy Ethelfrith, who had united the kingdom of Deira round York with Bernicia as far as the Scottish borders and thus became king of the whole of Northumbria. But it was his marriage to Ethelbert of Kent’s Christian daughter Ethelburga that was the other crucial feature of Edwin’s reign. For she brought with her to the Northumbrian court a Roman Christian monk of intense and determined personality named Paulinus. A potent combination of intellectual argument and magnificent papal gifts such as a silver looking-glass and a gilt ivory comb of exquisite Italian worksmanship, as well as a shirt of extraordinarily fine wool, successfully appealed to the king’s taste and to his sense of his kingly rank.

King Edwin’s conversion was a very serious matter which was evidently not embarked on without discussion among–and in effect with the permission of–his nobles and his leading heathen priest. It prompted one of the most famous passages in the literature of the Anglo-Saxons, written by Bede, which gives us a rare portrait of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ruler’s life. After the high priest Coifi of Northumbria had frankly admitted that even he had not gained from sacrificing to idols, one of the king’s chief men spoke out as follows:

This is how the present life of man on earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter-time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all. If this new doctrine brings us more certain information it seems right that we should accept it.


Utterly convinced, the high priest borrowed a horse from the king and rode off to destroy the shrine of the idols to whom the Northumbrians were still sacrificing herds of cattle.

Once Edwin had converted to Christianity, his people followed. It was as a community that on Easter Sunday 12 April 627 the nobility and a large number of ordinary people, as well as King Edwin, received baptism at York in a little wooden church built by Paulinus where York Minster now stands. Paulinus then travelled up and down the country performing mass in all the Northumbrian rivers. In fact there was such a fervour to be christened among the Northumbrians that for thirty-six days Paulinus had to work day and night in order to complete his task of baptizing people who had travelled for days from the furthest-flung villages and hamlets throughout the land. By the 630s Northumbria had become a byword for peace among its violent neighbours.

But Edwin, who became bretwalda on the death of Raedwald, had earned the hatred of the old Britons, that is the Welsh under their king Cadwallon of Gwynedd, because Northumbria was increasing its territory at their expense. Despite being a Christian, Cadwallon had chosen to combine his army with that of Penda, the warlike heathen King of Mercia.

The bitter enmity between the Roman missionaries and the Celtic Church meant that no Welsh bishops counselled Cadwallon to refrain from attacking his fellow Christian King Edwin. St Augustine had assumed that the Welsh bishops would be directed by him once his mission had arrived in England, for he had orders to set up two archbishoprics and twenty-four bishoprics. But the Welsh saw him as a foreign usurper who should bow to their more ancient faith. The conference Augustine called in order to reason with them ended with harsh words on both sides. Augustine denounced the Welsh bishops as heretics, warning of dire consequences if the Church was not united. These seemed to be fulfilled when Edwin was killed at the Battle of Hatfield in 633, and the west British swarmed all over Northumbria, burning villages and churches and almost wiping out Christianity despite their common faith. Cadwallon’s soldiers spared neither women nor children, so Bishop Paulinus had to gather up Queen Ethelburga and her household, together with a large gold cross and a wonderful chalice studded with jewels, and escort her south to her brother’s more peaceful kingdom of Kent. From being Bishop of York Paulinus ended his days as Bishop of Rochester, dying (for once we have a precise death date) on 10 October 644.

The devastation came to an end only when the son of Ethelfrith of Northumbria, Oswald, returned to his old country, drove out Penda and Cadwallon and forced the Welsh Britons as far as their kingdom in Cumbria to acknowledge him as their overlord. Oswald’s reign was brief, since he was murdered by Penda in 642. But it was memorable for his association with another great early churchman, St Aidan, who transformed the Northumbrian Church by exposing it to Irish Christianity and its twin traditions of classical scholarship and passionate Celtic evangelism.

St Aidan was a monk at the famous monastery of Iona off the west coast of Scotland where King Oswald himself had been educated and which had been founded in 563 by the Irish monk St Columba to convert the Scots. The monastery had maintained the best traditions of classical education, which had survived in Ireland because it had been left undisturbed by the German migrations. Irish Christianity was a markedly scholarly movement because its monasteries had been the preservers of a significant part of the European classical heritage that had perished in Italy and France under the onslaught of the German tribes. Classical manuscripts, many of them the legacy of Greek civilization to the Romans, once the common reading matter of Roman citizens, continued to be copied in Ireland by industrious monks.

When Oswald returned to Northumbria he brought with him the Irish-educated monks from Iona to re-establish Christianity in his shattered kingdom. St Aidan was made the bishop of the Northumbrians. In typically ascetic Irish and Scots fashion he chose to build his episcopal seat, cathedral and monastery off the Northumbrian coast on the small tidal island of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, just south of Berwick-on-Tweed. Despite St Aidan’s importance as head of the Northumbrian Church, the buildings on Lindisfarne had thatched roofs of reeds, after the Irish fashion.

Under St Aidan’s influence, King Oswald’s court became known throughout the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for its higher way of life. The nature of the Anglo-Saxon rulers and ealdormen began to change, guided by their priests into better behaviour. Many of the nobility began to copy St Aidan’s example of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Instead of an ethic based on the rule of the strong, which was the code of the Anglo-Saxons, Oswald became notable for his care of the poor. Bede tells many stories of the great novelty of the king’s selfless generosity, such as giving away his Easter lunch, a silver dish full of dainties, to the poor in the streets.

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When Oswald was succeeded by his formidable brother Oswy, who regained the bretwaldaship for Northumbria, the Christian way of life established under St Aidan and Oswald was exported with even greater momentum. Oswy made a point of encouraging missionaries from Northumbria to visit other kingdoms. Thanks to the activities of the Northumbrian monk St Ceadda or Chad, the population of Penda’s famously heathen Mercia also began to turn Christian, including Penda’s own son Peada. By 700 the whole of England had been converted to Christianity. The missionaries’ origins varied: in East Anglia it was the inspired preaching of a Burgundian which did it, while in Wessex it was a Roman from Kent. But in the main the impulse was coming from Northumbria, from Lindisfarne and from Iona. The Yorkshire monk Wilfrid of Ripon converted the South Saxons, while Cedd, who was Chad’s brother, reconverted the East Saxons.

By 698 the new monastery on Lindisfarne had produced an extraordinary monument to the new Northumbrian Christian civilization in the form of the Lindisfarne Gospels. This was a version of the Four Gospels of the New Testament but was decorated with beautiful illuminated letters and patterns, patterns which mingle Celtic designs and the sort of Anglo-Saxon shapes found on the buckles of the East Anglian Raedwald.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were made by monks living in communities which were becoming very much the rule in England by the end of the seventh century. Irish Christianity was notable for its monks’ austere way of life. The earliest Irish and Scottish monasteries tended to be sited in remote places like islands or on hills, and the monks’ cells would be beehive shaped, pleasant in summer and freezing cold in winter. But with the spread of Christianity, as a result of intermarriage between English rulers and of the energy of the Northumbrian and Irish missionaries, monasteries of a more sophisticated kind were built. They grew into large, powerful institutions, with many different rooms such as the scriptorium, where manuscripts were copied, and herb gardens outside. They provided schooling and were increasingly important communities in themselves. They started to have their own farms of sheep and dairy, particularly as the wealthy bequeathed land to monasteries in return for the monks’ saying Masses for their souls. Seventh-century women participated too. Soon there were many communities of what were called ‘double monasteries’, foundations where men and women lived side by side but in separate buildings. The Old English word for monastery is minster and towns with ‘minster’ at the end suggest that they were once religious communities–for example, Westminster, Minster Lovell and Upminster.

It was owing to the energy of King Oswy that the English Church achieved a much needed national unity, for there was constant quarrelling between the different Christian sects of the Roman, Celtic and Scots and Irish Churches. The dominant issue in their quarrel was the date of Easter, but the real problem was that the Church in England lacked a harmonious national organization. Although he was only a simple warrior, or perhaps precisely because he was a warrior, Oswy decided in 664 that how to calculate when Easter fell and a host of other matters should be determined once and for all.

Oswy called a national Church Council at the monastery built by the Northumbrian princess Abbess Hilda at Whitby on the windswept east coast of Yorkshire. Hilda was a great administrator whose abbey became a training school for Church statesmen. Her monastery produced at least five outstanding ecclesiastics including Wilfrid of York and became a place where kings and princes sought advice on government. Here too in the 680s lived Caedmon, a humble lay brother who would compose some of the earliest extant Anglo-Saxon religious poetry.

Bede described the shyness of this poor lay brother attached to the abbey who, because he was uneducated, performed all the tasks of a servant. In the refectory or dining room at meal times (for monks and lay brothers ate together to emphasize the brotherhood of man) the educated monks would amuse themselves inventing elegant verse. Caedmon was always too embarrassed to speak when he saw the harp coming round the long table towards him. He would quickly find an excuse to leave. One night in the stable where he slept in order to take care of the monastery’s horses he had fallen into a melancholy sleep, all too aware of his ignorance. Suddenly someone appeared to him in his dreams and said, ‘Caedmon sing some song to me.’ Caedmon replied that he could not sing and that was why he had left the hall. But the other insisted that he should sing. ‘What shall I sing?’ asked Caedmon. ‘Sing the beginning of created things,’ said the other. And Caedmon, in the muck of the stable, found that the most beautiful verses were coming out of his mouth as he sang the praises of God the Father who had made and preserved the human race. The story goes that when Abbess Hilda heard the exquisite poetry he was speaking she ordered that Caedmon should no longer be a lay brother but should be given a proper monk’s habit.

It was at this abbey that the churchmen of the many separate kingdoms in England bowed to the power of the bretwalda Oswy and assembled in what was the first British conference, the Synod of Whitby, attended by all the great figures of seventh-century British Christendom in a bid to stop the bickering between the Irish and Roman Churches. The Irish Church had become a law unto itself during the Dark Ages when it lost contact with Rome. By 664 it was in effect a separate and rival organization which frequently disagreed with the papacy, whether on the date of Easter or on the tonsure–Irish monks were tonsured (shaved) at the front from ear to ear while Roman monks were tonsured on top. In daily life as the Church began to occupy an increasingly central position within the Northumbrian state this was beginning to create a number of practical problems.

With St Aidan’s death and the accession of the fiery Bishop Colman to Lindisfarne and the bishopric of York, the issue led to a ludicrous antagonism between the two branches of the same faith. Some people had been converted by Irish Scots and some by Roman missionaries, so that their disputes were beginning to take up energies better used elsewhere. At the Synod of Whitby Wilfrid of Ripon was in favour of the Roman way of reckoning. ‘Why’, he asked with some resonance, should a small number in ‘the remotest of two remote islands, the Picts and Britons, be different from the universal Church in Asia, Africa, Egypt, Greece, Italy and France?’

It was left to King Oswy to decide. He came down in favour of the Church founded by St Peter, in preference to what had in effect become a detached Church founded by St Columba. But at this pronouncement Bishop Colman, who was a strict adherent of St Columba, flew into such a rage that he resigned his bishopric at Lindisfarne, stormed back to Iona and eventually returned to Ireland. Oswy’s Synod had done the English Church a great service. Christianity in England was now run by the Roman Church, which had the virtue of being an efficient, permanently staffed, wealthy international organization as opposed to the Irish Church’s reliance on the enthusiasm of individuals. A few years later the country benefited from the pope’s choice of a brilliant priest from what is present-day Turkey named Theodore of Tarsus as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Despite the importance we attach today to the ancient archbishopric, hitherto the Archbishop of Canterbury had had little actual power outside Kent. But over the next twenty years Archbishop Theodore’s organizational skills transformed the English Church into a rationalized whole. In 672 its first canons gave Theodore and his successors at Canterbury authority over all the English Church, with power to create dioceses and make new bishops, a landmark in English religious history. All the bishops (the planned total of twenty-four had now been reached) of the different kingdoms, Mercia, Northumbria and so on, were to be under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Training schools were set up to ensure that each bishop had so many monks and priests to help with his work as well as schools for gifted children, whatever their means. As a result of Theodore’s Greek-speaking background Greek and Latin were taught again to the inhabitants of England as well as the ancient curriculum of the Seven Liberal Arts: the Trivium and the Quadrivium.

The English Church gained a sense of national unity from the Church Councils which Theodore called on a regular basis. As religious enthusiasm swept the country with the aid of the well-to-do, a large number of monasteries were built all over England, particularly in Northumberland. The monks began to produce alliterative religious poetry like the Germanic verse of their forefathers. Talented poets in their midst were most likely responsible for the fusion of Christian values and the Saxon warrior past, which by the eighth century had produced two of the greatest Anglo-Saxon poems,The Dream of the RoodandBeowulf. If they were not written by monks they were certainly copied down in manuscript by monks in their scriptoriums and transmitted as the Anglo-Saxon version of Christian culture to future generations. They also memorialized the lives of those around them. They painted pictures not of the fabulous monsters of their Nordic ancestors’ dour imaginations but of the real people they saw around them: English ceorls working in their fields or hunting hares with ermines, nobles on their horses flying hawks from their wrists. As the wealthier classes’ children were educated in monasteries, their pleasures became more cultivated. They wrote gnomic verses, simple poetry. Once they had been taught to read and write by the Latin-speaking monks, the cleverer might enjoy Anglo-Saxon riddles derived from Latin literature, as well as that literature itself, including Virgil’sAeneid(which Bede had certainly read) and Pliny’sNatural History.

Christianity had become a power throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as important as the kings and their lords. Other than the monastic communities themselves, the key element in each diocese was not the parish priest, of which there were few, but the bishop, who then had an itinerant preaching role. At first there were very few parish churches because they took time and money to build. In areas where there were none, Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus allowed people to worship in the fields, which is why standing crosses were often erected instead of altars. Elaborately decorated with new foreign motifs like the Byzantine-style vineleaves of Theodore’s craftsmen, they may still be seen at Bewcastle in Cumbria and at Durham.

Some Saxon churches, like the important example at Brixworth in Northamptonshire and theLorna Doonechurch St Mary the Virgin at Oare in Somerset, survive to this day. But the majority were either destroyed by the Danes or rebuilt by the Normans. As the centuries went on, parish churches tended to be erected as private buildings by wealthy individuals. From this came the large number of lay patrons in England who derived their right to appoint a priest from having built the church on their own land. By the late tenth century, the tithe, a tenth of the farmer’s crops, was legally owed to the Church to support the parish priest. A hundred years later the English lord saw it as part of his duty to give the Church a third of his manor lands’ income.

On the death of Oswy in 670 Northumbria began to lose her position as the dominant kingdom in England to Mercia. Oswy’s son Egfrith had not inherited his father’s practical nature and wasted his kingdom’s resources on fruitless attempts to expand north into the country of the elusive Picts. The eighth century in England is generally known as the period of the Mercian Supremacy under two powerful kings–Ethelbald (716–57) and Offa (757–96).

The period was also to be celebrated for the flowering of the Northumbrian Church in what has been called the heroic age of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as the traditions established by the zealously pious Northumbrian kings and monks at Lindisfarne came to fruition. Its Irish roots gave it a strong pietistic strain as well as the profound sense of mission of its great founders like St Aidan. By the late seventh century the English Church was sending missionaries back to Germany to convert the lands of their heathen forebears. The mission to Saxony was begun by the Bishop of York Wilfred of Ripon, when he was wrecked off the coast of Frisia. It was continued by his pupil St Willibrord and by Willibrord’s contemporary St Boniface.

Strong links were also established between the Northumbrian Church and the new regime in France, where the great tradition of English scholarship of the eighth century helped create a revival of western learning–what is called the eighth-century Carolingian Renaissance. Among the fruits of these contacts was the Palace School founded by the greatest of the Carolingian kings, Charlemagne, where young Frankish nobles and promising boys from poor families could be educated. The blond, magnificent Charlemagne, who could neither read nor write himself, set great store by education. The heathen German Saxons who were given a choice of ‘Baptism or death’ by his conquering soldiers would have been surprised to know that Charlemagne slept with a slate beneath his pillow, hoping to learn by osmosis the magic letters he found so difficult.

In England the power of Mercia meant that for the first time King Ethelbald began to style himself King of All South England, while Offa his successor simply called himself King of the English. This he was certainly in a position to do: except in Northumbria and Wessex, where the ancient house of the West Saxons continued in very reduced circumstances, King Offa directly ruled most of the rest of the country. A superb soldier who introduced a magnificent struck coinage with fine silver pennies in imitation of Roman currency, he also adopted Roman methods to keep the Welsh British out of England, constructing his famous Dyke from sea to sea which can still be seen today. Offa was a notable protector of the Church, which he encouraged as a source of stability and education, supporting it with grants of land and building many abbeys.

During the long reigns of the two strong Mercian kings which between them covered almost the whole century, England prospered as never before. From being the barbarians of Europe, the English had become renowned for their orderly way of life and exemplary scholarship. Charlemagne corresponded with Offa and called him ‘brother’, an epithet he accorded to very few people, and Offa made the first extant European trading treaty on behalf of the English with Charlemagne. It provides for reciprocal rights of free passage for merchants visiting France or England to be enforced by local officials.

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In 787 with great pageantry and ceremonial King Offa’s daughter Eadburgha was married to Beohtric, the King of the West Saxons. The marriage brought even more of the West Saxons’ territory within Offa’s orbit: he had already annexed all the West Saxons’ land north of the Thames. Such was Offa’s prestige that he could persuade the pope to split the see of Canterbury in two in order to give Mercia its own archbishopric at Lichfield in Staffordshire. However, despite King Offa’s unique position abroad and at home it was during his reign that an external force of far greater magnitude first began to threaten England.

Shortly after his daughter’s magnificent nuptials in Wessex, three enormous ships appeared off the Dorset coast, each of them almost eighty feet long and seventeen feet wide–the size of a large house or hall. The ships, which had sailed from Denmark, put in to the harbour at Portland, full of strange, grim men from the north. Instead of responding civilly when one of King Beohtric’s officials asked them to accompany him so that they could be registered in the nearest town of Dorchester, as was the practice in those peaceful times, the foreigners turned on the customs official and killed him. ‘These’, saysThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicleominously, ‘were the first ships of the Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation.’ There were many more to come.

Those three ships are the first mention in English history of a fearsome Scandinavian people called the Vikings. For the next 200 years they would destroy much of the newly erected structure of medieval Christendom by their lightning raids. The Vikings’ name came from the old Norse wordvikmeaning creek or fjord and they themselves were land-hungry young men from the creeks of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Brilliant sailors at a time when the nations of north-west Europe had forgotten the art of seamanship in favour of agriculture, the Vikings were also enthusiastic traders and adventurers who roamed the seas, bartering hides from their own countries with whatever took their fancy in foreign ports. But they also had the bloodlust that Christianity had damped down in the Angles and Saxons. The Vikings sacrificed to their cruel old gods of Thor and Odin with death and destruction, believing that only by bloodshed would they reach the afterlife.

For some time in the early years of the ninth century rumours had been sweeping the Scandinavians that Charlemagne’s conquest of the Frisians, the north German policemen of the Baltic, meant that there were no longer any Frisian warships protecting western seas. Very rich pickings were to be had there. At the same time there had been a rapid increase in the numbers of Scandinavian people, something of a population explosion. The Vikings were landless young men who took to raiding to feed themselves as there were not enough fields to support them beside their narrow Norwegian fjords. Self-sufficient and independent, used to ruling themselves in their isolated hamlets and lonely forests, they were irked by the strengthened powers of the monarchy under powerful kings in Denmark and Norway, like Harold Fairhair, the first King of Norway. Pastures new were what they needed, and these they sought with a vengeance. The coasts of eastern England and the north coast of the Frankish Empire, as Charlemagne’s sprawling lands were known, were now at the mercy of any Viking expedition strong enough to overcome resistance at the point where they landed. And again and again they would come, from the icy capes of the Baltic to Britain’s fertile and warmer shores.

Fifty years earlier in 732, western Christendom had just succeeded under Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel in defeating the Muslim warriors who had conquered Spain, beating them in the Pyrenees and throwing them out of France. But now Christian European civilization was in danger again as the Viking ships harried the north European coasts.

The 300-year era when the Vikings overran Europe displays many similarities to the earlier ‘Dark Ages’. Once again, particularly during the ninth century, much of the learning which had been cultivated so painstakingly to replace the devastation of the German migrations vanished. The light given to Europe by Christianity flickered and very nearly went out. Today it would be as if all our public libraries and publishing houses and schools were burned to the ground systematically, with never enough time to rebuild them.

Unfortunately for England many of her most important monasteries which were centres of learning like Lindisfarne were especially vulnerable to the Norsemen, owing to their founders’ wish for solitude. Situated on unprotected promontories jutting out to sea, or on islands far away from the king’s soldiers, they were sitting ducks. The Vikings had no sense of their sacredness but thought only of the chapels’ famous gold chalices and jewelled ornaments.

The Norsemen’s shallow-draught boats were designed to travel swiftly up rivers and estuaries. Their longboats with their vast striped single sails, their snapping dragon-head prows, their shields hung out over the side and huge chainmailed warriors became the sight on the horizon most dreaded by coastal dwellers. The Vikings were stealthy fighters and often moved by night. They would put down their oars, take up their broadswords, disembark and kill the helpless monks even if they were at prayer, before seizing all the gold and silver which the monasteries had collected over two centuries. They would then be off, leaving buildings in flames behind them and despair among the survivors.

Ninth-century Vikings in England and Ireland were responsible for the loss of very nearly all of the priceless monastery libraries, built up by monks painstakingly copying manuscripts by hand. Before printing was invented that was the only way to make a copy of a book. Thousands and thousands of illuminated manuscripts whose great initialled letters occupied a whole piece of vellum and took a year for a monk to paint, became ashes beneath the fallen masonry. Only a tiny number of early manuscripts survived the onslaught of the Vikings, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the eighth-or ninth-centuryBook of Kells, which was probably made on Iona but carried over to Ireland. Both are now on display in the British Library. Lindisfarne itself, the great centre of English religious life for two centuries, was destroyed in a Viking raid in 793 and the helpless monks slaughtered. It was followed a year later by Jarrow, birthplace of Bede, and the next year by Iona.

It is hard for us to imagine today how frightening the Viking threat seemed. But the thought of their ships lurking offshore began to prey on the confidence of the peoples of England and France. To the terrified inhabitants of England the burning of Lindisfarne was a sign that God was angry with them, for Lindisfarne was an especially holy place. Why had He let it be destroyed? The Viking plague and their barbaric ways–‘Where we go the ravens follow and drink our victims’ blood!’ they sang as they disembarked in their horned helmets–made them bogeymen to the Christian nations. It was no wonder that the Mass each Sunday began to include the heartfelt prayer: ‘From the fury of the Vikings, save us O Lord!’

There were three kinds of Vikings and they moved in three separate directions. While the Swedish Vikings swept east in their thousands under their chief Rurik to found the Kievan Rus or first Russian state, the Norwegian Vikings sailed west and founded Greenland. Two centuries later, about the year 1000, they would discover North America, putting in at what is now New England, which they called Vinland. They sailed down the west coast of Scotland and across to Ireland, where they founded Viking cities like Dublin and Cork and laid waste almost all the wealthy monasteries in the north of the country. They descended on the Orkneys, Caithness, Ross, Galloway, Dumfries, the Isle of Man, Cumberland, Westmorland, Cheshire, Lancashire and the coast of South Wales. Whirling their double-headed axes, against which there was no response, they carried many of the inhabitants into slavery.

The third kind of Viking, known as the ‘inner line’, concentrated their unwelcome attentions on the southern coast of England and the north coast of continental Europe. These Vikings were Danes from Denmark, whose ancestors had moved into the districts left empty by the Angles when they went to England in the fifth century. At first the Danish Vikings came only in small bands, for during the first thirty years of the ninth century a strong Danish monarchy and the remnants of Charlemagne’s diplomacy protected southern England and France from the worst of danger. But the collapse of the Danish monarchy with the death of King Horik removed the last constraint, and the mid-ninth century saw the high tide of Danish Viking expansion, spearheaded by Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnar Hairy Breeches) and his myriad warrior sons.

As the Vikings became more successful, their fleet on the high seas grew dramatically. At the height of their power in the 860s it numbered 350 ships. With one hundred fighting men on board each craft and the experience of thirty years of warfare, the Danish Vikings were a lethal striking force and increasingly daring and aggressive. From merely being coastal raiders, who in a sense could be lived with, the Vikings of the mid-ninth century started to spend the winter in the countries they raided, showing their utter contempt for the local community.

Vikings began to anchor large fleets in the loughs and estuaries of Ireland and build forts on her eastern shore. Their intention was not just to raid, but to drive out the native population and settle. It was on Holy Saturday 845, the day before Easter, that the full extent of Viking ambitions were understood. On that Easter eve even the most notorious Viking of the ninth century, the fearsome chief Ragnar Lodbrok, sailed up the Seine and sacked Paris. The citizenry fled and the churches were abandoned. Ragnar Lodbrok had successfully struck at the heart of the kingdom which had dominated Europe so recently under Charlemagne. Before the appalled eyes of the Frankish king Charles the Bald, Ragnar Lodbrok hung 111 citizens from trees and let another hundred go only when he was paid 7,000 pounds of silver. Then, his red beard glinting in the pale spring sun, he made a sarcastic bow to the terrified king and took himself off to the open seas once more. But there was no doubt among the watching crowds where power lay. It was certainly not with the king.

From now on Danish Viking armies took up more or less permanent quarters on the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Somme, the Seine, the Loire and the Garonne. In 859 Vikings were fighting in Morocco and carrying off prisoners to their Irish bases. The sons of Ragnar Lodbrok sailed to Luna in Italy and captured it under the illusion that they had come to Rome itself. The Vikings now had all but encircled Europe with their raids, for in the year 865 the Swedish Vikings who founded Russia laid siege to Constantinople.

It was against this background in 849 that the man was born at Wantage in Berkshire who was to save England from the Vikings. He is known to history as Alfred the Great, and he was a prince of the royal house of Wessex.

Alfred the Great to the Battle of Hastings (865–1066) 

Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons. According to folk memory its founders were chieftain Cerdic and his son Cynric in 495 when they landed at what is now Southampton but which they called Hamwic. (The suffix ‘wic’ comes from the Latin wordvicusmeaning a place, hence Ipswich and Norwich.) The eighth-century supremacy of the Mercian kings had put an end to Wessex occupying the valley of the lower Severn, but this kingdom–which began in the lush and rolling pastures of Hampshire–still ended at Bristol to the north, and incorporated all of Dorset and Somerset. The West Saxons were not only good military strategists. They were a reflective and organized people. One of their most important kings was Ine, who at the end of the seventh century had issued a code or accumulation of the West Saxon laws.

By the third decade of the ninth century the Mercian supremacy in England had yielded to that of Wessex as, benefiting from vigorous rulers, the kingdom continued to grow rapidly. In 825 Alfred’s grandfather Egbert decisively defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Ellandune and thereafter the old Mercian tributaries of Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex became permanently part of the kingdom of Wessex and had no further separate existence. Egbert, who ruled for thirty-seven years, also finally put an end to the West Welsh or Cornish as an independent power by occupying Devon up to the Tamar; henceforth the Cornish paid Wessex an annual tribute. Only East Anglia, Mercia, Wales and Northumberland remained separate from the kingdom of Wessex but acknowledged Egbert as their overlord. And when Egbert obtained Kent he became the protector of English Christianity because it was the seat of the Primate of all England.

The expansion of the Wessex kingdom was played out against the background of the increasingly daring raids of the Danish Vikings. As we have seen, they were beginning to pose a real threat to the peace and security of the whole of England from the 830s onwards; over the next thirty years there are records of at least twelve attacks, and there were probably many more. But as the records were mainly chronicles kept by monks they tend to be incomplete because so many were destroyed during the raids. In the 840s Vikings devastated East Anglia and Kent, attacked Wrekin in Mercia and in 844 killed the king of Northumbria. But at least they went away again, taking their booty with them.

Ten years later the situation was worse. The Vikings were moving in greater numbers, operating in concert with one another, as opposed to the single-ship raids of earlier years. To contemporaries they had taken on the appearance of a ‘pagan army’. In 851 King Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great, defeated a fleet of Vikings several hundred ships strong attacking Canterbury and London which had driven King Beorhtwulf of Mercia into exile. Another Wessex prince, Ethelbert, one of Alfred’s brothers, who ruled Kent for his father, defeated a Danish army off the coast at Sandwich. Despite these successes, in 855 a large Viking fleet took up permanent winter quarters on the Isle of Sheppey, menacingly close at the end of the Medway to the mouth of the River Thames. The Vikings began building forts there. Many Londoners feared that, just as the Vikings had sailed straight up the Seine to Paris, it was only a matter of time before the Vikings sailed up the Thames and took London. As a result of his family’s victories over the Danes, the Wessex that King Ethelwulf handed on to his sons was the most important kingdom in England. But the whole country continued to live in the shadow of another Viking invasion. Ten years later what had been feared for so long came to pass. In 865 a ‘Great Army’ of Danish Vikings landed in East Anglia with the obvious intention of conquering and settling the whole of Anglo-Saxon England and making it a Danish Viking kingdom.

Although there had been isolated raids on England the Viking attack on Jarrow in 794 had not been an altogether triumphant experience as it had resulted in the death by torture of the expedition’s leader. This may have made the Vikings more wary of England. Certainly for much of the ninth century they tended to concentrate their larger numbers on France and Ireland. In about 855 Ragnar Lodbrok, who had forced the French king Charles the Bald to hand over 7,000 pounds of silver, at last fell into the hands of Aelle, the King of Northumbria. Ragnar Lodbrok had been raiding Northumbria with impunity, and seeking ever greater speed (according to legend) had built two boats so large that they proved unmanageable. Cursing his folly, the greatest Viking of them all was wrecked off the coast.

Ragnar Lodbrok was captured, tortured and thrown into a dungeon where he died a lingering and painful death among poisonous snakes, humiliated by the mocking faces of the Northumbrian court who came to gloat over the giant red-headed Viking. But even as he wasted away on his filthy palliasse and the Northumbrians congratulated themselves on their capture of the man who had terrified half Europe, Ragnar Lodbrok would not expire quietly. From his prison deep below the castle walls the old sea king could be heard roaring terrible songs of death and glory and prophesying the reign of terror that would begin when his sons came for his murderers. ‘Many fall into the jaws of the wolf,’ he sang, ‘the hawk plucks the flesh from the wild beasts.’ But while he would soon be enjoying feasts in the halls of Valhalla, ‘where we shall drink ale continually from the large hollowed skulls’, his sons would soon be drinking from the Northumbrians’ skulls. Meanwhile, as the snakes rustled beneath him, he called on his sons to avenge him: ‘Fifty battles I have fought and won. Never I thought that snakes would be my death. The little pigs would grunt if they knew of the old boar’s need.’

And the little pigs did more than grunt as they grew up. Ten years later those little pigs, Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan and Ubba arrived at the head of the Danish Great Army and exacted a terrible price for the death of their father. Landing on the coast of East Anglia in 865 they laid waste the countryside until they had obtained provisions and horses from the terrified farmers. Then they galloped north up the Roman Ermine Street, which still ran so conveniently along the east coast of England, to York, the capital of Northumbria. By 867 the whole of Northumbria, its government already weakened by civil war, was in the hands of the Danish Great Army. They had their revenge, killing both King Aelle and his rival and eight of their military leaders or ealdormen. A puppet king named Egbert was put in to rule the former kingdom of their father’s executioner.

But Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan were not content just with Northumbria. Now the Great Army, which was many thousands strong, wheeled about, crossed the Humber and went south to take possession of Nottingham, the capital of once powerful Mercia. Although an army came up to help from Wessex, because the Mercian king Burghred was married to Alfred’s sister Ethelswith, the Danes cunningly refused to come out from their defensive earthworks. In the end the Mercians had to agree to pay them to go away. After wintering again in York and causing misery to its citizens, the Great Army moved back south to East Anglia. On the way the Vikings destroyed the beautiful and ancient monastery at Medeshamstede (Peterborough), killing the abbot and monks and burning the celebrated library. In East Anglia the brave young King Edmund led an army against them. But he was taken prisoner and then horribly murdered at Hoxne, twenty-five miles east of Bury St Edmunds: he was tied to a tree where he was used for archery practice before being beheaded. The abbey of the town of Bury St Edmunds was erected in the murdered king’s honour over his burial place. East Anglia too was now another kingdom of the Vikings.

In five years three of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, all the land north of London–that is Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria–had fallen to the Danes like ripe apples off a tree. Only Wessex remained Anglo-Saxon. The others were now in effect a huge Danish kingdom run according to Danish law. Thanks to poor and haphazard military organization and no fleet to protect their coasts they had been easy meat for any enemy with a standing army and an urge to conquer. Although the fyrd required men to spend forty days a year fighting, it was unpopular and its call often ignored. Of those who did respond most of its members preferred not to fight beyond their kingdom’s boundaries. Rather like jury service today the forty days might come at the worst possible moment, perhaps when the peasant farmer was desperate to bring his harvest in before it rained.

If the isolated raids earlier in the century had been terrible, the permanent presence of the marauding Danish Great Army gave daily life the oppressive feel of a never-ending nightmare. The Trewhiddle Hoard, an important collection of early church silver (now in the British Museum), was hidden in a tree by a priest who never came back for it. It is a mute memento of the continuous slaughter that took place and the destruction of a culture which had developed over two-and-a-half centuries. There is a chronicle written by an eyewitness, a monk of Croyland in the Fens, which gives a typical account of the arrival of a Viking war-party as it was experienced throughout England and describes how the soil shook beneath the pounding hooves of the heathen Danes’ armoured horses as they travelled from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. The abbot of Croyland and his monks were at their morning prayers when a terror-stricken fugitive ran in to tell them that the Vikings were on their way. Some of the monks took to their boats and rowed away from the monastery praying that in the mists and marshes of the Fens they would not be found. But the rest were slaughtered where they stood.

By the autumn of 870 the Danes decided to conquer the last of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England which remained independent, namely Wessex. But they had finally met their match. Although the present king of Wessex, Ethelred, was not gifted with determination and was more concerned with his spiritual life than with preserving the safety of the kingdom, his younger brother and co-commander Alfred, who was soon to succeed him, was the heir to all the best qualities of West Saxon kingship. Alfred was the fourth and youngest son of King Ethelwulf, who had passed on to him a strong sense of his duty to resist the destruction of Christendom by the Vikings. Ethelwulf had also inspired Alfred with memories of the most constructive sort of Christian kingship handed on to him by his own father Egbert, who had spent his early life at the court of Charlemagne. Alfred was taken to Rome by his father at least twice on pilgrimages to invoke God’s goodwill towards Wessex and protect her from the Viking plague. Reflecting fears among the West Saxons that Christian civilization might die out in England because of the repeated attacks of the Danes, Ethelwulf had designated one-tenth of his kingdom’s revenues to be given to the Church to ensure that learning continued.

The sense of learning’s almost irreversible decline, now that so many monks and priests had been killed, was a subject which would obsess Alfred himself. Once king he would embark on an extraordinary programme to re-educate the English. In later years he would remember that during his childhood ‘there was not one priest south of the Thames who could understand the Latin of the Mass-book and very few in the rest of England’. As a result Alfred himself did not learn to read until the age of twelve, and then only by his own efforts because there were no monks left to teach even a king’s son.

Alfred’s dictum, ‘I know nothing worse of a man than that he should not know’, reminds us that as a result of four decades of Viking raids knowledge could no longer be taken for granted. Latin was the language of learning but as there was no one to teach him Latin–Alfred only learned it when he was forty–much was lost to him, as it was to many other English people. The Welsh monk Asser, who became bishop of Sherborne, wrote a famous contemporary life of Alfred in which he relates that the king told him ‘with many lamentations and sighs’ that it was one of the greatest impediments in his life that when he was young and had the capacity for study he could not find teachers.

Thus when the Danish army decided to turn their unwelcome attentions on Wessex by capturing the royal city of Reading at Christmas 870 they encountered resistance to the death, for to Alfred this was a battle to save English civilization. But it was touch and go. Just when the actual king of Wessex, Ethelred, ought to have been marshalling the attack on the Danes on the Ridgeway in Berkshire, he insisted on listening to the end of the Mass. While Alfred was lining up his part of the army in the famous Anglo-Saxon battle formation called the shieldwall, Ethelred refused to come out of his tent, declaring that as long as he lived he would never leave a service before the priest had finished. Meanwhile the terrifying Danish army were hurling their javelins at the Wessex men below their ridge and keeping up a deafening noise by banging their shields. Ethelred continued to listen to the incantations of the priest as the twenty-one-year-old Alfred took the offensive and charged up the escarpment. His men fought so fiercely around a stunted thorn tree that quite soon, despite their mail shirts, many leading Vikings lay dead on the ridge. The rest soon fled.

Although this was far from being a conclusive engagement (it would be many years before the tide finally turned for the English under Alfred), it was the first time that the Danes had been beaten in open battle. When Ethelred died in his twenties and Alfred became king in 871 he bought time to recover from the Danes by signing a peace treaty. The Danes themselves were glad of a temporary lull. They were exhausted by the ferocity of Alfred’s attacks whenever they ventured out of the fortress they had built at Reading. Fortunately the Great Army was then distracted by a revolt in their northern possessions and, having put it down and hammered the kingdom of Strathclyde in south-west Scotland, half of its soldiers under their leader Halfdan decided to tangle no more with Wessex. They would remain in the north and make it a proper Danish kingdom instead of ruling through a native puppet. Under Halfdan as king the Danish Vikings took over much of the old kingdom of Northumbria, corresponding approximately to Yorkshire today (as is shown by the concentration of Danish place names in that county: the suffixes ‘-wick’, ‘-ness’, ‘-thorpe’, ‘-thwaite’ and ‘-by’ are all indications of Scandinavian settlements). Danish soldiers became farmers. They made their capital at Yorvik and organized the land for taxation purposes in the Danish way bywapentakesinstead of by hundreds as in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

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By 874 the Danish army had further consolidated its hold on the rest of occupied England. Most of Mercia other than the small area to the west of Watling Street was parcelled out between Danish nobles. Thus the whole of England from the Thames to the Humber was ruled by Danes in a federation of settlements called the Five Boroughs: Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

But the other half of the Danish army which had not settled in the north still had their eye on the rich southern lands of Wessex, that is Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Devon, which were slowly recovering from the Great Army’s depredations. After four years of inactivity the rest of that army decided to return to the fray under its king, Guthrum. Accordingly it moved south to Grantabridge (which we call Cambridge) and began to harass Wessex again. It now occurred to Alfred that the only way to stop the Vikings calling for help and reinforcement from their cousins’ fleet in the Channel off France was to defeat the Vikings at sea before they reached land. He therefore sent for the Vikings’ old enemies, the Frisians, and invited them to show the English how to build their style of ships, which had previously been a match for the Vikings. The ships which resulted were faster and longer than those of the Vikings. Alfred can justly be said to be the father of the Royal Navy.

While Alfred laid siege to Exeter, where the enemy was currently holing up, sailors on the new ships were appointed to watch the coast and prevent Guthrum’s Great Army from obtaining supplies by sea. Undaunted by rumours about Alfred’s navy, the Danes sent messages for help to their Viking relations in France, who under their leader Rollo were in the middle of forcing the Franks to grant them what in 911 would become the kingdom of Normandy (or the kingdom of the Norsemen). The new navy’s first encounter was with a massive force of 120 French Viking ships crossing the Channel with some 10,000 men. Fortunately poor weather played into Alfred’s hands. For once the indomitable Vikings were tired out by battling with storms. They were defeated by Alfred’s navy and their fleet destroyed off Sandwich on the coast of Dorset. Guthrum and his army were allowed to ride out of Exeter and travel to Gloucester in Danish Mercia after they had sworn solemn oaths that they would leave Wessex alone.

But the Danes were not men of their word. They soon broke the Treaty of Exeter. Guthrum had drawn up a plan with Ubba, Ragnar Lodbrok’s youngest son who was now king of Dyfed and was laying waste South Wales, whereby they would both attack Wessex. At Christmas 878, believing that the Danes would abide by their oaths, Alfred had told all his thanes to return to their estates. Meanwhile he was alone with his young family in the royal palace at Chippenham, dangerously close to Gloucester. Just after Twelfth Night a messenger brought him the news that an enormous Danish army was ‘covering the earth like locusts’ and on its way to Chippenham.

By midnight the Danish army had occupied Chippenham, and the king and his family had only just escaped them by fleeing to the unnavigable marshes of east Somerset. The submission of most of the West Saxon nobles followed. They were exhausted by the unending war. Many left their lands to flee abroad, ruined by the obligation to feed the occupying army. Alfred the Great, however, would not submit. While the Danes once more divided up Wessex between them he stayed in hiding with a few nobles on the Isle of Athelney in Somerset. This was dry ground at the confluence of the Tone and the Parrett, surrounded by marshes and impassable rivers where no one could enter except by boat. In the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford may be seen a wonderful little artefact of the most exquisite Anglo-Saxon workmanship. Made of enamel, gold and precious stones and decorated with Christian symbols it bears the legend ‘Alfred me fecit’, which means ‘Alfred had me made’ in Latin. Alfred must have dropped the jewel there when he was camping on the island, for 1,100 years later it was dug up on Athelney by a local farmer.

On the island Alfred and his men lived roughly with few of the necessities of life except what they could forage openly or stealthily by raids. The king himself lived in a hut belonging to one of his cowherds. To this period belong many famous legends about him. One day the wife of the cowherd was preparing cakes (scones probably) for the oven and Alfred, who was still only in his twenties, was sitting at the hearth trimming his arrows and dreaming of the day when his country would be free. The goodwife asked the disguised king, whom, in his homespun clothes, she took to be another shepherd cluttering up her house, to keep an eye on the cakes while she went for some water from the spring near by. But Alfred was so lost in thought planning the next attack that the cakes burned quite black without his noticing–to the fury of the cowherd’s wife, who shouted crossly at him as if he were a kitchen boy. The horrified cowherd had not told his wife who their guest was, but he now revealed his identity and she was covered with confusion. But King Alfred only laughed and told her she had been right to scold and that he should have been minding the cakes. Years later when he was restored to his kingdom he sent for the couple and rewarded them for helping him in his hour of need. Alfred continued to resist the Danish by guerrilla raids and built an impregnable fort on the island where his family could be safe. It is said that he even went into the Danish camp disguised as a harper. He wandered from tent to tent playing and singing but also secretly noting the number of men and the position they occupied.

Thanks to Alfred’s perseverance news spread among the West Saxons that all was not lost and that the king was secretly gathering an army of Wessex men on the twenty-four acres of the island. Support for Alfred grew so rapidly that by the seventh week after Easter 878 a huge number of West Saxon men from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire came out of hiding to meet him at Egbert’s Stone, now Brixton Deverill in Wiltshire.

Alfred met the enemy at Edington near the Danish camp at Chippenham. After a siege of fourteen days he won the decisive engagement of the war. It was said that the Danish standard, a raven with outstretched wings which had been woven by the daughters of Ragnar Lodbrok in a single day, drooped and did not fly before the battle. It was an omen of the defeat to come by the White Horse of Wessex, the emblem which adorned Alfred’s banner. So complete was the rout of the Danes that Alfred was finally able to dictate the sort of terms which pleased him, including forcing the Danes to accept Christianity. The Danes made a treaty, wrote the chronicler, ‘such as they had never given to anyone before’. By the Treaty of Wedmore in Somerset the pagan army had to vacate Wessex and surrender southern and western Mercia to Alfred. Guthrum, the pagan king, would have to be baptized, with Alfred standing as godfather. Guthrum, who was given the baptismal name of Athelstan, thus became Alfred’s adopted son, and there was now a relationship between them which would be taboo to break.

Although Alfred had won a major victory, his kingdom was still surrounded by hostile Danish territory. And that autumn yet another Viking force under a leader named Haesten appeared at the mouth of the Thames aided by Guthrum, despite his treaty with Alfred, and proceeded west up the river to make its winter headquarters at Fulham. Though it disappeared briefly to Ghent after two years of terrorizing Fulham, the Viking fleet then sailed back and forth between England and France laying waste to Kent and besieging the city of Rochester in 884. Only the bravery of Alfred’s army succeeded in frightening it off for good.

Alfred had learned a valuable lesson from the siege of Rochester. His towns needed to be better defended and should be able to function as fortresses. The fyrd also had to be reformed into a more reliable army with a longer period of service. Alfred’s solution was to divide it into two, with one half on active service, the other on home leave. He also created a network of defences in southern England which had never been attempted before, centred on fortified walled towns called burhs (from which derives the word borough). These were built in a girdle round Wessex so that no member of the kingdom would be more than twenty miles from a refuge against the Danes. There were about thirty of them and they ranged from Southwark in the east through Oxford, Cricklade and Malmesbury to Pilton in north Devon and all along the south coast from Halwell in Devon to Hastings in east Sussex.

In tandem with the invention of burhs went Alfred’s reform of local government in Wessex. Made autocratic by the desperate nature of his situation he increased royal power by overriding the ancient boundaries of the hundreds, and divided the country into official shires. Each shire’s government was centred on a burh containing a shire court, the shire and burh being run by one of Alfred’s royal ealdormen, whose powers could override those of the local lord. These men were responsible for implementing royal commands to raise taxes or call out the fyrd and would be expected to find men to garrison the burh in time of war as well as to undertake general public works for the shire such as repairing bridges or the walls of the burh itself. As the house of Wessex took over more of England the shire system spread throughout the country, so that by the beginning of the eleventh century the whole of England south of the Tees was divided into shires.

The local bishop was as important a figure in the shire as the royal ealdormen, who in time saw their powers transferred to the shire reeve, or sheriff. The bishop would help preside over the shire court and would often have partial responsibility for the money supply because, as fortified places created by a charter from central government, the burhs usually contained a mint.

Despite the strengthening of the monarchy under Alfred, like every Anglo-Saxon king since the most ancient times he continued to rule and pass laws with the approval of the institution known as thewitena gemot, the king’s council. As the Wessex kings took over more and more of the country the witan acquired the character of a national assembly.

By 866 Alfred had become a symbol of hope for the English. He had reconquered their most important city, London, from the Danes–burning many of the Danish settlements there to teach the treacherous Guthrum a lesson. London could once again be the entrepôt of English national and international trade. This was the first time that other Englishmen realized that the Danish occupation was not necessarily a permanent state of affairs, but might one day be reversed. Alfred gave permission for the Danes to remain in a ghetto, the Aldwick (that is, Aldwych, commemorated by the church of St Clement Danes), but he rebuilt London to emphasize its importance as a centre of English life. He founded much of the area of today’s modern city, creating new streets between Cheapside and the Thames and building a palace for himself at Old Minster. Instead of leaving it as the undefended open settlement it had become under the Mercians, running along the side of the Thames in the area now covered by the Strand and Fleet Street, he moved the city back within the Roman walls. He also founded Southwark to protect the river at its shallowest point, as that was the main route into London.

The English Mercians asked Alfred to be their overlord in return for his protection. But the king thought it best to be tactful about ruling their territory, which had such a proud history. He therefore made a Mercian nobleman, Ethelred, the ruler of the Mercians with rights over London, and married him to his daughter Ethelflaed. Many of the Welsh princes thought it wise to follow suit, so he became their overlord too. He was described by a contemporary as ‘king over the whole kin of the English except that part which was under the power of the Danes’. Many authorities see this moment, when Alfred is acknowledged as a leader of the English against the Danes, as an important stage in the advance of the English peoples towards political unity, a unity which had been forged by national danger. Alfred was the first person to call the English ‘Angelcynn’, which means the ‘English folk’. However it would not be until the end of the tenth century in the reign of Alfred’s great-grandson Edgar that the concept of ‘Englaland’ as a political unit would be adopted.

A second treaty, known as Alfred’s and Guthrum’s Peace, between Wessex and the cowed Danes provided a new boundary between Alfred’s kingdom and the Danish territory, or Danelaw. West Saxon Mercia was to consist of the land north of the Thames to the River Lea on the frontier of Guthrum’s kingdom of East Anglia, up to Bedford where it followed the old Roman road of Watling Street before ending at Chester on the Welsh borders. The boundary of Wessex with Danish East Anglia was redrawn at the latter’s expense. Though the area Alfred controlled was large, the Danelaw was larger still, but such was the respect the Vikings had for the king of Wessex that the treaty also secured the rights of English subjects living within Guthrum’s Danelaw so that there was no discrimination against them in law.

As the first king to defeat the Vikings Alfred’s fame spread all over the continent. He was so highly esteemed by the pope as a Christian hero who had driven off the heathen that the Anglo-Saxon school in Rome was not taxed and the pope sent him what was supposedly a piece of the True Cross on which Christ had been crucified–the greatest honour he could bestow. Now that Alfred had secured the kingdom against further external and internal threats the rest of his reign could be dedicated to rebuilding a kingdom whose institutions had been almost destroyed by the Danish wars. Half the royal taxes were donated to the Church each year to rebuild monasteries at home and abroad and so begin the revival of learning, while, since so few of the English people knew any Latin, the king personally oversaw the translation into Anglo-Saxon of books he considered important. Alfred himself translated Bede’sEcclesiastical History, saying it was ‘one of the books most necessary for all men to know’, as well as Orosius’ history of the world. His translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s suggestions for pastoral care in the running of a parish was distributed to every bishop with instructions to make copies of it. Alfred also added notes to his translations where he thought it might help the reader, for he believed that everybody should have access to knowledge whosoever they were. His translation of Orosius contains descriptions of the ninth century’s idea of the geography of northern and central Europe, obtained from adventurous Scandinavian visitors to his court, such as a Norwegian named Ohthere who had lived inside the Arctic Circle, as well as from his own sailors whom he urged to explore the unknown. In order that his people should enjoy what he had sorely missed Alfred paid for scholars to come from abroad–Frisians, Franks and the Welsh–to help him raise educational standards. Asser remembered him remarking sadly that ‘Formerly people came hither to this land in search of wisdom and teaching and we must now obtain them from without.’

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One of his first acts as king was to build a monastery on the Isle of Athelney, where he had been sheltered. It was the first part of his plan to revive the monastic life, which in Asser’s words had ‘utterly decayed from that nation’. Though some monasteries were still standing, no one directed their rule of life in a regular way. Most English people had lost all their old reverence for the Church. Alfred would have to mount a national recruiting campaign to find men and women to become monks and nuns. Even then the condition of the English clergy was at first so poor that the abbot for the new monastery on Athelney had to be brought in from Frisia in northern Germany. Alfred’s younger daughter Ethelgiva became a nun, and he founded a convent for her near the eastern gate of Shaftesbury.

As part of his programme of repairing the Viking destruction of English life, Alfred commissioned a history of England calledThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicleto help his people acquire some knowledge of themselves and their history. And to make sure that every English person did read it, for he wished all English boys to know their letters, he commanded that it should be written in the language everyone could understand, that is Anglo-Saxon. Copies of the history were distributed to every important church in the country. Containing a brief description of the important events of each year since the mid-fifth century and influenced by Bede in its use of records, theChroniclewas continued in various monasteries after Alfred’s death up until the twelfth century. Along with Bede’s history it is one of the most remarkable of the early histories which any European people possesses.

Alfred believed that kings should have good tools to work with. He wrote, ‘These are the materials of a king’s work and his tools to govern with; that he have his land fully peopled; that he should have prayer men and army men and workmen.’ The prayermen had been taken care of. Now Alfred turned his attention to some of the workmen, particularly the judges. The normal machinery of English life had been badly disrupted by the war with the Danes. The Anglo-Saxon law dispensed every month in the local hundred courts was based on ancient custom. But as a result of the wars many people were no longer clear what the ancient customs consisted of. To make up for these gaps Alfred updated the West Saxon laws for the nation, including whatever he thought helpful in the codes of Ethelbert of Kent, Ine of Wessex and Offa of Mercia. The introductory preface announced that he had showed them to his witan, whose members had agreed that the laws should be observed.

Scholars believe that Alfred was personally responsible for a new emphasis on laws to protect the weak. And he himself said that one of his functions was to be the defender of the poor (who received a quarter of his income), because they had no defenders. He imposed further limitations on the destructive custom of the blood feud and emphasized the duty of a man to his lord. Up to Alfred’s day there were no prisons but such was his desire to reintroduce a peaceful and civil society where a man’s word really was his bond that anyone who broke his oath was to be given forty days’ imprisonment.

Alfred’s laws had a strongly religious flavour. They opened with the Ten Commandments and included many biblical references to persuade the English to hold them in greater respect. His judges, the local lords, were told that they would either have to improve their legal knowledge or resign. Asser reports that, though most of the judges were ‘illiterate from their cradles’, in fear and admiration of their great king they frantically set about studying. Since so many of them could not read, most of them adopted King Alfred’s suggestion of having the laws read out to them by a son or slave ‘by day and night’, whenever they had the leisure. Alfred often looked into their judgements. If he disagreed with them he summoned the judge in question and asked why he had come to such a conclusion. ‘Was it ignorance, malevolence or money?’ he asked frankly on one famous occasion.

Mindful of his grandfather’s descriptions of Charlemagne’s famous Palace School, Alfred established his own school at the royal court. This was to educate the cleverest boys in the kingdom, regardless of their origins, as future clerks for his civil service so that he would be able to draw on the largest pool of talent in the country. Holy and devout, Alfred invented the first English clock, a horn lantern with candles so that he could divide his day satisfactorily into three eight-hour parts, one for praying, one for governing and one for sleeping. Upon his death in 899, aged only fifty, he was buried in the New Minster he had built in his capital of Winchester.

King Alfred was one of the most important English kings, whose defence of English civilization has rightly earned him the soubriquet the Great. He was succeeded by a worthy soldier son Edward the Elder, who continued the fightback against the Danes that his father had begun. Despite all Alfred’s achievements, Edward the Elder still inherited a kingdom which confronted land occupied by the bloodthirsty Danish armies all the way to Whitby in north Yorkshire. Moreover, when the Danes settled they settled in armies rather than kingdoms, so that the threat of another invasion was always present. Further danger threatened because the Norse kingdom of Dublin in Ireland was forever casting covetous eyes at the Danish kingdom of York, which was becoming an important Scandinavian trading post.

As a military strategist, Edward knew that for the sake of England’s security he would have to launch a series of pre-emptive strikes against the Danish kingdoms which surrounded him. He should try to capture as many as he could or at least neutralize them and show that there was no point in building a war chest against him. With the help of his sister Ethelflaed, who was known as the Lady of the Mercians because she ruled them after her husband’s death, and by constant fighting Edward pursued Alfred’s ambition of making England a single state. They strengthened the frontier with the Welsh and Danes by making use of Alfred’s device of the burh or fortified town, and they had reconquered the rest of the midland part of the Danelaw, starting with the five Danish boroughs of Derby, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester and Lincoln, by the time Ethelflaed died, worn out by the constant campaigning. Edward appointed no successor to his sister but took over the government of both Danish and English Mercia, roughly speaking what we call the midlands today, further unifying the country. The midlands were followed by the reconquest of East Anglia and then of a great deal of Northumbria after a lengthy northern campaign. In the process a fresh line of fortresses was built eastwards from Chester along the line of the River Mersey.

By 923 the rest of the princes of Britain accepted they could no longer resist a great West Saxon king who was never happier than when leading the attack in his buckskin trousers and gripping his small shield. Edward and his descendants became overlords to the Scots and Welsh and began to enjoy greater status abroad as a result. Edward the Elder’s son, the golden-haired Athelstan, was fêted with expensive gifts by the greatest European rulers of the age, who made a point of intermarrying with the house of Wessex. The German Henry the Fowler, king of the East Franks, married his son Otto, the future emperor, to Athelstan’s sister Edith, while another sister married the king of France. Alfred had long favoured Athelstan because of his beauty, graceful manners and love of poetry. He had given his grandson a special Saxon sword to remind him to be proud of his ancestry, and a scarlet cloak, and Edward had deliberately educated him in his aunt’s household in Mercia to bind that kingdom closer to the West Saxon monarchy. Athelstan’s campaigns drove out the line of Danish princes ruling York. Although in 937 some Welsh princes, the Scots king Constantine and Vikings from Dublin revolted against Athelstan, they were conclusively defeated at the Battle of Brunanburgh and did not rebel again.

Under the rule of the Wessex kings England over the next fifty years became a unified country. The expansion of the royal house of the West Saxons into a national monarchy was helped by the Danes’ destruction of the old dynasties of Mercia and East Anglia, and by the fact that for almost a hundred years there were no fresh Danish invasions. For the great period of Viking invasion was now over–not only in England but on the continent. In 911 Rollo and his Norsemen had been granted a kingdom in the basin of the lower Seine which soon became known as the Duchy of Normandy, on condition that they defend the Frankish kingdom against attack. They were baptized and became subjects of Charles the Simple; Rollo himself married Charles’ daughter. Throughout Europe there seemed to be peace at last from the Vikings’ marauding ways, though the French cleric Abbé Suger would presciently remark that ‘The Normans, in whose fierce Dansker blood is no peace, keep peace against their will.’ One hundred years later England would feel the force of that statement.

Like so many of the Wessex kings Athelstan died young, aged only forty, in 940. He was followed by his brother Edmund, who successfully quelled Danish rebellions in Mercia and Deira and brought Scotland under King Malcolm into a closer alliance with England in return for forcing the Welsh to give the Scots Cumberland. Somewhat to the surprise of the English, after half a century the Danish now settled down to being constructive neighbours: once tamed the Vikings would enrich the blood of Europe and England. They had always been merchants as well as pirates, as scales found buried with battleaxes in their tombs show. With the war over, town life in what was becoming known as Yorkshire began to revive. Rural life was invigorated too. These fearless people, who would put to sea in any weather, did not exterminate the local populations as their Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done, but used their English neighbours’ knowledge of the land to become excellent farmers. Viking ancestry may account for the famous hardness and cussedness of the people of Yorkshire, that nation within England. The English as a whole would learn a great deal from Viking military success: they borrowed the Vikings’ disciplined wedge formation to fight on land, as well as their metal mesh shirts, which would become the chainmail body armour of the English knight.

In 946, after only six years on the throne, King Edmund was murdered while gallantly saving a guest from a roving band of outlaws who had managed to get into the royal banqueting hall. Although he left two small sons they were too young to ascend the throne, which now passed to Edward the Elder’s youngest son Edred. Although Edred was in poor health his chief minister was one of the great figures of the tenth century–the monk St Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury. St Dunstan had a powerfully ascetic nature, sleeping in a cave by the side of the church of Glastonbury, where the ceiling was so low that he could not stand upright. Like Alfred he was determined to encourage a monastic revival in England to rebuild the civilization destroyed by the Danes. But as well as remodelling the English monasteries on the lines of the Benedictine reforms at Fleury on the Loire, Dunstan guided Edred in expanding the boundaries of his kingdom, and by 954 Edred had decisively reconquered Northumbria from the Danes. He was soon calling himself the Caesar of the British. More than ever the English and Danes had been blended into one people, a process speeded up by the conversion to Christianity of most of the inhabitants of the Danelaw. Dunstan had the farsightedness to allow the Danes in the northern Danelaw a certain amount of independence, enabling them to run their county in their old manner through earls, as they called their rulers. On the death of Edred in 955 his nephew Edwy became king, but he quarrelled with Dunstan and drove him into exile. Dunstan had in any case made many enemies for himself at court by his attempts to expel the married secular canons who, owing to the dearth of English monks, had taken over what were previously monasteries. Their relations at court benefited from livings that passed from father to son and they influenced the king against Dunstan.

Without Dunstan to guide him Edwy’s rule was both weak and harsh. Mercia and Northumbria rebelled against him and insisted that his younger brother Edgar become king of their countries. Dunstan returned in triumph to crown the new king with the sacred oil known as chrysm, for the first time in England’s history, to show that Edgar was the Lord’s Anointed. That ritual is still part of the coronation ceremony today. Although Edwy remained king of Wessex, upon his death Edgar became king of the whole of England. He ruled from 959 until 975 and is most famous for being rowed on the River Dee at Chester by six under-kings who all acknowledged him as overlord: the king of Scotland, the king of Cumberland, the Danish king of the Isle of Man and three Welsh kings. Advised by St Dunstan, who had been made Archbishop of Canterbury, Edgar avoided the destructive border wars with the Scots by making the king of Cumberland vassal to the Scots king, and by giving Scotland Lothian, which until then had been part of the kingdom of Northumbria. As Archbishop of Canterbury St Dunstan was now in a position to address the low standards of behaviour in English monasteries and ensure that there was once again a thoroughgoing obedience to the rule of ‘poverty, chastity and obedience’ first laid down by St Benedict in the sixth century. Many of the secular canons were replaced by monks.

Edgar’s reign was the high point of the West Saxon monarchy, before the years of its decline under his son Ethelred, famously nicknamed the Unready, who reigned from 978 to 1016. Ethelred inherited the throne after his elder half-brother, King Edward the Martyr, the successor to Edgar, was stabbed to death on the orders of Ethelred’s mother Elfrida.

To the chroniclers it seemed that the crown taken in blood brought nothing but misfortune to the king who wore it and to the country he governed. Contemporary observers were savage about Ethelred: one said that he had occupied the throne for thirty-seven years rather than ruling it, and that his career had been cruel at the beginning, wretched in the middle and disgraceful at the end. Archbishop Dunstan was forced by Elfrida to crown her son king to lend the coronation an air of legitimacy. But the murderous queen mother had reckoned without Dunstan’s powerful conscience and strong sense of justice. As the ceremony began St Dunstan could not refrain from giving public vent to his feelings of outrage. As he lowered the crown over the head of Ethelred he prophesied, ‘Thus saith the Lord God, the sins of thy abandoned mother, and of the accomplices of her base design, shall not be washed out but by much blood of the wretched inhabitants of England; and such evils shall come upon the English nation as it hath never suffered from since the time it came to England.’

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Dunstan did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled. But in the fourth year of Ethelred’s reign it seemed to come to pass when after almost a century of absence a new Danish army arrived in England. These Vikings landed at Southampton in 982, as piratical and cruel as their ancestors of a hundred years before, probably inspired to invade by rumours that England was ruled by boy-kings and priests. In the next decade the whole of the south coast and East Anglia were continually attacked.

Ethelred had none of his great-great-grandfather Alfred’s iron will. In 991 after a Danish victory at the Battle of Maldon in Essex he notoriously made the first payment of Danegeld in England’s history–that is, he paid the Danes to go away. The first payment was £10,000, an enormous sum, and was taken from everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. But £10,000 was not enough. Encouraged by the ease with which they had obtained it, the Danes soon returned for more. They demanded £16,000, then £24,000, then £32,000–the equivalent in today’s terms of millions of pounds. Having to find the money for the Danegeld tax led to a dramatic increase in the number of free peasants forced to become serfs: many had to abandon their own subsistence farming and become farm labourers tied to the manor’s fields in order to pay back the tax money lent them by the local landowner.

The word Danegeld has become infamous ever since in English culture as shorthand for a cowardly and ultimately shortsighted course of action. Ethelred tried to buy freedom when he should have fought for it, never thinking that the Danes would ask for more when the money ran out. During his reign, the English lost the old fighting spirit that had defeated the Danes before. Morale plunged. Out of the thirty-two English counties, the Danes had soon overrun sixteen.

The whole country groaned under the assaults from the sea and the oppressive taxation. Ethelred now became known as Ethelred the Redeless or Unready. The meaning of this soubriquet has changed in the centuries since it was coined, for the English were making a rude pun out of his name. In Anglo-SaxonEthelmeant noble or good andredemeant counsel or advice. The name Ethelred thus meant good counsel. But because his actions always seemed the result of poor counsel Ethelred became known as Ethelred the Redeless, or Ethelred No Counsel.

To compound the feeling of hopelessness in England, Ethelred now married a Viking himself in order to curry favour with the Danes. He took for wife Emma of Normandy, whose father the duke was an ally of the aggressive Danish kings behind the new Viking raids. But Ethelred was incapable of a consistent course of action. In 1002 he turned on his Danish subjects living in the old Danelaw, giving secret orders that on 13 November, the feast day of St Brice, all the Danes in England should be butchered. Neighbours were told by the shire reeve to kill neighbours, hosts to massacre their Danish guests. It was a despicable act, violating all laws of hospitality, as well as intensifying racial divisions.

Gunhildis, the king of Denmark’s sister, was then living in England as the wife of an English nobleman. Unlike her brother King Sweyn Forkbeard, Gunhildis was a Christian and had pledged to improve relations between the Danes and the English. Though she threw herself on her knees before Ethelred crying for mercy and reminding him of all she had done for her adopted country, he commanded that she and her son be beheaded just the same.

But Ethelred had made the most disastrous miscalculation of his reign in refusing to spare the king of Denmark’s sister and nephew. Outraged by these murders and those of his fellow Danes, Sweyn Forkbeard avenged them by invading England in 1013. After ten years of softening England up by means of coastal raids while he made preparations for a full-scale invasion, Sweyn arrived in person at the head of an immense army. Showing as little mercy to the English as Ethelred had showed to the Danes, he killed all the English he encountered as he marched through East Anglia to Northumbria. Having received the submission of most of the country, he then besieged London–which was sheltering King Ethelred. The citizens of London, who then as now were known for their independence of mind, were preparing themselves to fight to the last man to save Ethelred.

But there was no need. The minute he saw Sweyn’s tents going up round the city walls, Ethelred, who was as indolent as he was cowardly, announced that he could not endure the boredom of a long siege. He fled in the night to Normandy, where he had sent his wife Emma and their two children to be protected by her brother. Sweyn would have become ruler of England had he not died suddenly, leaving Denmark and England to his son Cnut, a superb military strategist. But the English still harboured fond thoughts of their ancient West Saxon monarchy. At their invitation a reluctant Ethelred returned to England to lead the resistance against Cnut. When Ethelred died soon after, in 1016, the struggle was carried on by his son Edmund, offspring of an earlier marriage to an Englishwoman, and thanks to his tremendous physique known as Edmund Ironside. After six battles the two kings realized that they were so evenly matched that it was better to come to a power-sharing agreement. By the Treaty of Olney, a small island in the Severn river, Cnut became king of Northumbria and Mercia while Edmund Ironside remained King of Wessex. On Edmund’s death in November 1016 the ealdormen of Wessex chose Cnut to be their king as well and England was once again ruled by a single monarch.

To give greater legitimacy to his reign Cnut now married Ethelred’s widow Emma of Normandy, the mother of the future king Edward the Confessor. Although Cnut did not kill any of the old Anglo-Saxon heirs to the throne he did the next best thing. He despatched Edmund Ironside’s two sons to the king of Sweden with orders that they be executed. In the event they were preserved on account of their innocent appearance before being sent south-east to the court of the king of Hungary; their descendants married into both the Hungarian and Scottish royal families. Meanwhile the only other two serious claimants to the English throne, Emma’s sons Alfred and Edward, were protected in Normandy by their uncle Duke Richard. They were growing up more Norman than English.

England prospered under Cnut. By 1027 he had successfully invaded Scotland, forcing the king of the Scots, Malcolm II, to do homage to him as his vassal or under-king. Quite soon Cnut felt sure enough of his position in England to despatch home the remnants of the Danish army with which his father had seized England. Unlike the old West Saxon kings, however, he was perpetually watched over by a giant palace guard, his 3,000 Danish ‘housecarles’, and he still had a large standing navy. But though Cnut gave a good deal of English land to fellow Danes, there was no dispossession of the native aristocracy as there would be later under the Normans. He relied on English advisers to help him rule.

Cnut was in many ways very similar to the old German kings. He loved the military life, and evenings were passed relating campaigns in his great hall. But as a simple soldier what mattered to him was the truth, and he despised the flattery that many English courtiers used to curry favour with him–as the best-known story about him illustrates.

The king with several Englishmen was walking by the sea. ‘Your Majesty,’ said the boldest and most sycophantic Englishman, ‘we were thinking that Your Majesty is so powerful that everything in our country obeys you. Why, even the waves would obey you if you commanded them.’ At last Cnut had had enough of their absurdities. Turning on them he told them to bring a chair down to the waves and set it a little way from where the tide was coming in. ‘Now,’ he said, seating himself on the throne and watching the waves wet his feet, ‘I bid the waves retreat, but they pay no attention to me. I am not a fool, and I hope that next time you embark on silly compliments that you expect me to swallow, you will remember this and hold your tongues.’

The diminutive Cnut gave England an important new legal code. It reinforced the position of the Church and restated many of the ancient English customs as well as innovatively requiring every freeman to be part of the hundred and the tithing (a ten-man grouping within the hundred). By making its subjects responsible for preventing criminal activities by their fellows the kingdom became more orderly. Cnut was anxious to differentiate himself from other Vikings and to join the commonwealth of Christian nations. Attracted by the splendour and ancient nature of the Church, he went on pilgrimage to Rome to attend the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor, and could not resist exploiting the occasion to get customs relief for English pilgrims. The Danes who had accompanied him to England were made to adopt Christianity and he sent English bishops to Norway and Denmark to convert their populations. Cnut’s insistence that Sunday be kept as a day of rest and his enforcement of Church tithes soon won him the support of the Church bureaucracy, as did his sense of his royal duty as a moral preceptor.

The Danegeld Cnut exacted from his English subjects was enormous. Nevertheless some important Saxon families came to prominence during his reign. Cnut was often called away from England to rule his immense Nordic empire overseas, which consisted of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, as well as the Hebrides, and his English advisers had to rule in his absence. One particular Saxon family, the Godwins, who were thanes from Sussex, began a rise to power which would eventually lead to the throne. They profited from Cnut’s decision to divide England for administrative purposes into four earldoms, covering areas which followed the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms–East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. Unfortunately these earldoms had the effect of undoing much of the political unity of England created by Alfred and his descendants. Regional loyalties revived around them and became a source of weakness when a national will to resist was needed against the Normans. At first the earldom of Wessex was ruled by Cnut himself, but by 1020 the energetic and crafty Godwin had flourished sufficiently to become earl of Wessex. And as a result of his friendship with Cnut he was married to a Danish lady connected to the court.

Cnut died in 1035 aged only forty, like many a campaigner worn out by a life in the saddle, and his empire died with him. It had been held together partly by fear of his formidable personality. But its break-up was also a sign of changing times. For the previous 200 years the dominant force in Europe had been Scandinavian, whether it was the landless Vikings themselves or their kings. But for the next century European history would be shaped by those descendants of the Vikings, the Normans, who had settled in northern France after receiving a grant of land from the French king and theoretically becoming his vassals. Thirty-one years after Cnut’s death, the military genius of the Normans would conquer England, and their Duke William would become known as William the Conqueror.

The Normans were first alerted to the possibility of England as a new fiefdom when they heard news of the struggle for the royal succession in that kingdom. Their informants were the Norman servants of Cnut’s widow Emma. Was the rightful heir to the English throne Cnut’s eldest son, the Dane Harold Harefoot, who did briefly succeed his father, or was the better claim that of Alfred and Edward, the sons of the last Saxon king of England, Ethelred? There were also in Hungary the sons of the heroic Edmund Ironside, potential heirs to the royal West Saxon throne. Matters were further complicated by Cnut’s favourite son Harthacnut, by Emma of Normandy, whom Earl Godwin had fixed on as a suitable pawn to further his own ambitions, though he claimed to be representing the interests of a fatherless son.

Godwin now took Queen Emma and the considerable royal treasures into what he called ‘safe custody’ and began to promote Harthacnut’s cause. Thanks to the backing of the Danes and the city of London Harold Harefoot had taken the crown and he expelled Emma and Harthacnut to Bruges. Only a few years later, when Harold Harefoot died in 1040, Ethelred’s elder son Alfred ventured out of hiding in Normandy to claim the throne in London before Harthacnut could return. But the masterful Earl Godwin was having none of that. On his secret orders Alfred was arrested, blinded, incarcerated and subsequently murdered in the monastery at Ely, and Harthacnut was crowned king.

Godwin, whom the chroniclers describe as a man ‘of ready wit’, managed to overcome the feeble Harthacnut’s protests at the death of his half-brother by paying him some of the treasure he had accumulated over years of plotting. But on the death of Harthacnut in 1042, which ended the short line of Danish kings, Godwin moved rapidly to become the mentor of Ethelred’s younger son Edward. Known to history as Edward the Confessor, he was also living in Normandy and was now the outstanding candidate for the throne.

But Edward, whose nickname arose out of his religious disposition, as he was said to go to confession at least once a day, was not the natural material of which rulers are made. It is said that, lost in uncertainty, he threw himself on his knees before the burly Godwin and asked what he should do. Godwin promised that if Edward would place himself entirely in his hands, grant great offices of state to Godwin’s sons and marry Godwin’s daughter, he would shortly see himself acclaimed king.

And so it proved. Controlled by Godwin, on Easter Sunday 1043 Edward the Confessor was crowned with tremendous pomp at his ancestor Alfred’s capital of Winchester, specially chosen to remind the country of his royal West Saxon blood. Edward married Edgitha or Edith, Godwin’s beautiful and cultured daughter, but he remained more like a monk than a husband, and indeed more like a monk than a king. Above all, the new monarch was a Norman first and foremost. Far from being proud that he was an Anglo-Saxon king, Edward’s passion was for everything Norman. Norman monks had brought him up when his mother decamped to live with Cnut; the Norman language and Norman customs were what he was used to and what he preferred. As soon as he came to the throne, he surrounded himself with Norman advisers, which helped protect him against the overpowering Godwin, of whom he was always afraid given the rumours about his role in the terrible death of his brother Alfred. As a celebration of Norman culture Edward soon began to build a great church in the Norman style on the north bank of the Thames which would become Westminster Abbey.

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The English royal income was prodigious by now for under the strain of the Danish wars and then of Danegeld the raising of taxes had become immensely efficient. Ethelred the Unready had created the rudiments of a civil service of clerks to raise money from the shires. These royal officials communicated with the shire reeves so frequently that a special form of letter from the king to the shire court called a writ had developed before anywhere else in Europe. It was identified by the king’s seal attached to it and had the force of law. By the eleventh century it was the shire reeve or sheriff who oversaw the shire court and was the king’s official representative (even if that meant conflict with the local earl), in charge of ensuring that the king received the taxation owed to him.

The colossal sums which these improved fiscal methods raised should have been spent on maintaining England’s shore defences; instead they were used by Edward to buy relics, or the bones of saints, in silver caskets shaped like miniature churches. He did not keep up the small permanent navy that had become an important guarantee of England’s security. The Confessor’s days were passed at Mass in the company of the Normans he had imported. They were avaricious, disciplined men who watched the king like hawks and were always looking for ways to get rid of the over-powerful Godwin and his sons.

Quite soon two bitterly opposed parties grew up at Edward’s court, the Normans versus the English magnates headed by Godwin. The Normans, with their almost oriental courtesy, disliked the free and frank ways of the English, who did not stand on ceremony. They also objected to the arrogance of the Godwin family, who seemed to place themselves on a level with the king. The Godwins frequently ridiculed Edward’s holy simplicity–and even did so in his hearing, as shocked observers noted. Godwin’s hold over the king enabled his sons to take huge areas of England into their fiefdoms. Thanks to Godwin’s pressure on the king, Sweyn, Godwin’s bad-penny son now had an earldom embracing shires from Mercia and Wessex, while his eldest child Harold had been made earl of Essex.

For their part the Godwins, especially Godwin himself and his most able son Harold, resented the arrival of more foreigners at court and detested their growing influence over the king. Normans took over many of the great offices of state, though few of them could speak English, and the Norman monk Robert of Jumièges was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Norman clerks were employed in the royal secretariat, so it came to be believed that only those who spoke Norman French had their petitions heard. In one part of the palace Queen Edith’s father and brothers and their supporters spoke English and wore the Anglo-Saxon long mantle. In another part the Normans laughed openly at the Saxon earls’ beards and moustaches. The Saxons were permanently in a fever to wipe the supercilious smiles off the Normans’ clean-shaven faces. Shaving was an affectation, said the angry Saxons, which made them all look like priests anyway.

It was a situation which could ignite at any minute, and it soon did–with the Godwins to fan the flames–when Edward’s brother-in-law Count Eustace of Boulogne paid England a visit in 1051. Like all Franks Count Eustace regarded Saxons as born slaves, despite their common Teutonic ancestry. On his way to London he spent the night at Dover. There, instead of paying for an inn, the count told his men to dress in full armour and demand accommodation from the townspeople at the point of a sword. The burghers refused point blank, and were promptly attacked by Count Eustace’s knights. Though they were mainly shopkeepers, they managed to kill nineteen of his professional soldiers.

The incident developed into a full-scale diplomatic row. An angry Edward turned on Earl Godwin within whose domain Dover lay and asked him to visit the port with summary justice–that is, to execute the men involved without holding an inquiry. But instead Godwin the over-mighty subject raised an army from the south coast against Edward, for his lands stretched from Cornwall to Kent, and started for London. It was only when two of the other great earls, Leofric of Mercia (whose wife Godiva became famous for her charitable work) and Siward of Northumbria began moving south with superior forces to support the king that Godwin saw that he should back off. He was forced to attend a meeting of the witan at London, and was exiled with his sons Harold and Tostig and his wife, while Sweyn was condemned as an outlaw. Meanwhile Edward turned on his wife Edith, Godwin’s daughter. He renounced her, stripped her of her jewels and had her locked up in a monastery.

At last out of Godwin’s shadow, Edward was now free to make his own decisions about the future of the English throne. He almost certainly came down in favour of his cousin William, the bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, in preference to his half-nephew Edward, the son of Edmund Ironside, whom he had never seen. The same year, 1051, most unusually William left his country to pay Edward what was probably a state visit to settle the succession in his favour. The Norman chroniclers of the period all agree on this, and William the Conqueror’s many later assertions that he planned to rule England according to the customs of the old English kings, ‘as in the days of King Edward’ himself, suggest that he saw himself as the legitimate heir. Nevertheless Duke William had no popular support in England, and those who met him in 1051 found him forbidding; he was described as a ‘stark man’. Despite the king’s own Norman leanings, the Normans were very unpopular in the shires, where they were increasingly being appointed as sheriffs. Since most of them could not speak English, they appeared to have little interest in procuring justice in the shire courts.

Taking advantage of this a year later, Godwin was back on a high tide of anti-Norman feeling. This time he had an enormous navy at his back and numerous enthusiastic seamen recruited from coastal towns. Having obtained the support of the City of London, he surrounded the king’s ships at Southwark and dictated terms to the weary king, whose only enthusiasm now was for the building of Westminster Abbey. To the mortification of the king, whose spirit never recovered, an open-air meeting of the witan voted to restore Godwin to his previous position. Many Normans were expelled from England and the queen came back from her convent to resume her rightful place at court. The Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Robert of Jumièges left the country and much of the archepiscopal land was redistributed to the Godwins. The Anglo-Saxon Bishop Stigand, a supporter of the Godwins, was appointed to Canterbury in his stead, without papal permission. The Godwins were now in complete control of the country. With the unusual appointment of Tostig Godwin as earl of Northumbria on the death of the famous Siward, the family’s rule stretched over the length and breadth of England.

The ambitious founder of this upstart house passed away soon after his return from exile, during a banquet. Legend has it that his death occurred just after King Edward had asked him, ‘Just tell me something, did you really put out the eyes of my brother Alfred and kill him?’ Godwin replied, ‘May God strike me dead if I did,’ whereupon he choked on a piece of meat.

Despite the death of the master plotter, Edward the Confessor’s childlessness meant that the succession continued to be a live issue for the Godwins and those who received their patronage. They were determined that the throne should not be settled on Duke William. At their insistence, now that the Norman party had fallen from power, King Edward at last sent for his half-nephew Edward to name him heir to the throne. Mysteriously this rival to William the Conqueror died shortly after arriving in England. Although Edward left a son, Edgar the Atheling, children were almost never crowned under the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and thus once again Duke William seemed the most likely heir.

Despite the king’s own leanings toward Normandy, Duke William’s claim was not clear cut. There was in fact no obvious natural successor to Edward the Confessor. Meanwhile the evident weakness at the heart of the English monarchy which Godwin’s rebellious behaviour had betrayed had aroused considerable interest in England from abroad. In Norway the ambitious young King Harold Hardrada now revived a claim to the throne as Cnut’s heir. Meanwhile the friendship between Tostig Godwin, the new earl of Northumbria, with Malcolm III of Scotland did not bode well for the future. It might lead to a Scottish-backed invasion of England.

The last years of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy saw a struggle against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the increasingly powerful king of Gwynedd and Powys. Gruffydd had united most of Wales under him. He had been encouraged by the disgruntled Aelfgar of Mercia, many of whose hereditary possessions had been given to Gyrth, the youngest Godwin, to invade England in alliance with a fleet from Norway. At this moment of national danger Harold Godwin began to attract attention for his daring Welsh campaign, which crushed Gruffydd and annexed his provinces to the English state in 1063.

Three years later, on the death of Edward the Confessor, to the witan Harold as head of the Godwins seemed the best possible English candidate for the throne. Apart from what remained of Mercia the Godwin family in effect ruled most of England. Though Harold was not of royal blood he was the natural choice to defend England from the threat of foreign invaders with claims to the crown, and as an Englishman he was far more welcome to the witan. By then the Godwins’ chief rival Aelfgar, the head of the still powerful house of Mercia, was dead, so Harold Godwin’s election went through unopposed. During the tenth century so many heirs to the throne had been minors at the time of the king’s death that the old English monarchy had become far more elective. There was precedence for this in the Holy Roman emperorship, but it followed a natural tendency in a country where from its most ancient beginnings Anglo-Saxon kings had tended to have their decisions approved by a council of lords. By the time of the Conquest the witan was well used to being consulted on major national issues. The assent of its members–thanes, bishops and sheriffs from every part of the country–to new laws, new taxes, military measures and foreign alliances was sufficiently important to be recorded as part of the ruling process.

Edward died on 5 January 1066 and was buried in the crypt of his new church, Westminster Abbey. The external situation was considered so dangerous that the very next day Harold was crowned king. Though quite contrary to precedent, since the Godwins were without a drop of royal blood in them, it indicated the family’s immense influence. But Harold’s was to be a very short reign. By Christmas of the same year William the Conqueror was being crowned in the same abbey.

For William of Normandy was convinced that he was the rightful heir to Edward the Confessor. Not only had the former king told him so, but according to the Norman version of events, which is all that survives, as Edward weakened over Christmas 1065 Harold sent a message to William on behalf of the English government declaring that the duke should be ready to receive the crown of England as soon as Edward breathed his last. When William, who was hunting in the forest of Rouvray outside Rouen, received word from England that Harold Godwin had been illicitly crowned in his stead, his rage knew no bounds.

The situation was further complicated by an unfortunate accident which had befallen Harold some years before. In exchange for being ransomed by William, Harold, who was prisoner of the local count after a shipwreck on the French coast, had been forced to swear to be William’s liege man, that is his servant. He had sworn an unbreakable oath of loyalty to William on a reliquary containing the remains of some of Normandy’s most holy saints and martyrs. In the period in question, when national law was rudimentary and legal charters were in their infancy, the orderliness of society was guaranteed by the sacred nature of the oath; oathbreaking was punishable by forty days’ imprisonment. William thus believed that he had been doubly insulted by Harold, who ought in any case to yield the throne to his liege lord.

Throughout 1066 William sent threats to the new king of England to remind him of his broken vow and to warn him that before the year had expired he would come and claim his inheritance. But Harold refused to take any notice, claiming that in return for vowing to be the duke of Normandy’s man he had been betrothed to William’s daughter, and that his oath was now void because she had since died. Unfortunately Harold seems to have had a reputation for being a slippery character like his father. One chronicler noted that he had a tendency not to respect the sacredness of his word. He was said to be ‘careless’ about abstaining from a breach of trust ‘if he might by any device whatever, elude the reasonings of men on this matter’.

Although Harold had gained the throne he never captured the imagination of the nation, and neither did the rest of the Godwins. His brother Tostig was unpopular enough to have been expelled from Northumbria after a popular uprising, and had to be replaced by Morcar, brother of Edwin of Mercia, who had succeeded his father Aelfgar. Mercia and Northumbria were thus controlled by two members of a rival and hostile family. The lack of countrywide support for Harold would be a fatal element in the next nine months, as would be the air of illegitimacy that continued to cling to the new king and his family. The Godwins’ impetuous replacement of the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury by the Anglo-Saxon Stigand without approval from Rome would enable William of Normandy to present his invasion as having a higher moral purpose: the duke announced that he planned to remove the illegal archbishop and replace him with the approved papal candidate. Archbishop Stigand had in any case caused offence by his independent behaviour, not least refusing to send the Church collection money called Peter’s Pence to Rome. The pope was happy to provide a papal banner for the expedition, beautifully decorated with pearls and jewels, to spur the duke’s men on.

William had also taken care to obtain the support of the other most important international figure in western Christendom, the Emperor Henry IV. Ever since 800 when the title Emperor of the West was created for Charlemagne by the papacy as a rival to the power of the Byzantines, the emperor had been the earthly magnate designated protector of the Church. With both emperor and pope onside, Duke William’s soldiers were united by a sense of the rightness of their task. Such a feeling was not present in an increasingly fragmented England. William’s soldiers also had a leader of great military renown who had seen off all comers from the kingdoms bordering Normandy, including France. This enabled him to be confident that the duchy would not be attacked in his absence, if he kept it short–particularly given that his greatest enemy, neighbouring Anjou, was wracked by civil war.

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William of Normandy had perfected a new method of warfare which would make the conquest of England surprisingly easy to achieve. His Normans fought on horseback and at short intervals threw up primitive castles made out of earthworks to hold the surrounding countryside. His great reputation meant that the expedition, for which he began building boats in the summer of 1066, attracted landless Norman knights of Viking origin in large numbers. Under the sacred papal banner at the ancient town of Lillebonne, with its old Roman amphitheatre, William assembled his force of 5,000 of the most daring men in western Europe. From Brittany, Flanders, Sicily, central France and Normandy itself they flocked to a man who promised them English land and English wives in exchange for their help in conquering England–for he had no gold to offer them. They loved to fight and saw a real prospect of gain for themselves across the Channel in England.

But so did many others. In May 1066 Harold’s brother Tostig–at the head of a menacing Norwegian fleet sent by Harold Hardrada of Norway–appeared off the Isle of Wight. From there he moved northwards up the east coast burning ports until he was seen off by Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar and fled north to sanctuary in Scotland.

To make matters worse, by midsummer Harold’s spies had confirmed that there would soon be an attack from Normandy. Harold frantically started rebuilding the neglected English navy, and kept the kingdom’s militia on standby, for across the sea the duke of Normandy was building more ships than had ever been seen together, perhaps a thousand in all. Though they were not much bigger than fishing smacks they would be more than adequate for their task. We can see them in the Bayeux Tapestry, which was commissioned by William’s half-brother the bishop of Bayeux to commemorate the occasion, and which shows them being dragged to the sea by ropes and loaded with horses and armour. In order to bind his men more tightly to him, the duke increased their pay and promised more. By August 1066 the dusty fields of Picardy were full of soldiers waiting for a propitious wind to carry them across the Channel from the port of St Valéry. For a month they lay in their tents as the great harvest moon waxed and waned and the black night sky filled with smoke from their campfires. But still no signal came.

Towards the end of September the soldiers began to mutter nervously that the lack of wind was a sign that God opposed the expedition. At this the brutal Duke William caused the body of St Valéry to be exhumed and paraded round the town while the soldiers watched. At last, a few days later, on 27 September, William got the wind he had asked for. As the soldiers knelt in thankful prayer William was already at anchor midway across the Channel waiting in his crimson-sailed ship for the other vessels to join him. Soon the invasion force was blown lightly across to England, where they landed at Pevensey (the Anglo-Saxon name for the former Roman port of Anderida). The remains of a Roman fort stood there, and William in the Norman fashion immediately made of it a rough defensive castle of ditch and earthwork to protect his troops. In fact the superstitious Norman knights might already have been disheartened, for William had tripped when he landed and sprawled his full length. But as they inveighed against the ill omen the duke leaped up with earth clutched in his fists, and exclaimed that he had only wanted to grasp his new kingdom more closely.

But what of King Harold? Why was he not there to repel the warriors clattering unopposed down the wooden gangplanks? Why was there no one to stop the whole host moving off east down the coast to Hastings, where William’s scouts had told him that the land was hillier and would be easier to hold? Indeed why had there been no ships in the Channel to stop the Norman fleet? By the most unfortunate of coincidences, the same wind conditions which had prevented the Normans from sailing had allowed Tostig and his ally the king of Norway, Harold Hardrada, to invade the north of England. On 25 September, two days before William and his troops arrived at Pevensey, Harold had defeated Tostig and Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York. It would take Harold at least ten days to reach the south coast and meet Duke William. But his men were exhausted from a battle in which so many of them had been wounded.

Worse still, after 8 September the English fleet had had to be disbanded because its sailors and the militia had been guarding the Channel ports since early summer and it was feared that they might mutiny if they continued to be left to their own devices. The militia was allowed to be called out for only forty days, and that period had elapsed. So the Channel had been left quite empty, with the English navy withdrawn up the Thames to London.

With characteristic energy but rather too great impetuosity, the minute he heard the Normans had landed Harold began to march south from York. But he lacked the full complement of troops he needed. The men of the earls of Northumbria and Mercia did not accompany him as they were still recovering from Stamford Bridge and so could not provide the great reinforcements which might have held off the Normans. Nor can the enmity between the Godwins and Edwin and Morcar have helped. The army which faced William consisted mainly of Harold’s own bodyguard, the 3,000 housecarles invented by Cnut, men supplied by his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine, and Londoners, thanes and churls living near enough to Sussex to join the host immediately.

Harold seems to have decided not to wait for the full English militia to be assembled before he moved on Hastings. It would have taken too long to go through the motions of summoning it out again from more distant shires, many of which were several days’ journey away. Perhaps in the confusion of those September days there was little time to think clearly, with danger facing him from north and south, and Harold was himself exhausted.

The Battle of Hastings was to be a very uneven contest, of highly trained Norman knights against a tired and disorganized English force. Too many of them were peasants in woollen shifts called straight from the fields. They were untrained in warfare but forced by the institution of the fyrd to do service perhaps with just a pitchfork, with a spear if they were lucky. They stood little chance against warriors on horses which were trained to rear and attack. The defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings hinged on the quality of William’s knights. They could follow military orders in a disciplined manner owing to the Norman practice of educating males in warfare from childhood onwards in the castles of the great lords. It was a way of life which was soon to become commonplace in England.

Hearing from his headquarters, a temporary wooden castle at Hastings, that Harold was fast approaching down what is today the A21, William seized the day. Moving his troops forward the Duke of Normandy made the English king halt at the highest point in the area, then called Senlac, while he positioned his own men on a ridge opposite. Harold had to draw up his forces round the royal standard in an uncomfortably narrow space with little room for manoeuvre. As soon as the sun rose on 14 October 1066, after the Normans had received Holy Communion from a silver chalice, William sent his knights down the hill towards the English while Harold and his men struggled to get into formation after the Saxon fashion, the king’s housecarles positioned in the centre, and all of them on foot–already a disadvantage against the mounted Normans. The Saxons were armed with their great battleaxes which they whirled round their heads. Closely packed next to one another and creating a wall with their long kite-shaped shields, they formed such an impenetrable mass that even horses could not get near them–so long as they did not break ranks. Harold particularly warned his men to resist the temptation to pursue the enemy, for then they would be lost.

In the very middle of the shield wall stood King Harold and his two brothers with the royal standard of England between them, so that no one would dare flee the battle when the king was in the middle of it. Flanking the shield wall on both sides were two wings of the lightly armed local farmers from Sussex and Kent. Among them were monks from Winchester: after the battle, as they lay dead on the field, their brown habits were discovered concealed within their armour.

At first the advantage seemed with the Saxons, because the steepness of the ground made frontal attack by the invaders very difficult. The Normans fought in the style they had brought back from the east–that is to say, making use of the Arab stirrup. This invention freed a rider’s arms to fight while the lower part of his body was secured to the horse. Again and again the Norman cavalry charged up the slopes of the hill where Harold was positioned, but each time it failed to break through the Saxon shield wall.

For six hours the battle was undecided, though victory seemed imminent for the more technically advanced Normans. William now threw his main energy into attacking the more lightly armed Saxon troops on the wings. His archers sent repeated flights of arrows over their heads. This inflicted heavy losses among the ranks of the English peasantry, who were not protected by the chainmail of the housecarles; nevertheless they stood their ground. Then the cunning duke gave his knights a signal. The whole cavalry wheeled round and appeared to flee. This was too much for the Saxons in the shield wall. With shouts and whoops they broke formation and began to pursue the enemy down the hill, heedless of Harold’s shouted orders to stay where they were.

As soon as the Saxons began to follow them, with a great roar the Norman knights turned back and rode them down. Soon the valley between the two hills was filled with the screams of dying men and horses. Bravest of all the Saxons that day was Harold Godwin. It was only when William realized that his troops would never get near the top of the hill, where Harold and his housecarles still kept the shield wall packed in tight formation, that he again ordered his archers to fire their arrows straight into the air over their heads. One of those arrows entered Harold’s brain through the eye and killed him.

The duke of Normandy was no less brave. His was the voice in the thickest of the fray urging his men on. He was always the first to rush forward and attack. Eyewitnesses said he was ‘everywhere raging, everywhere furious’, and, as with Harold, several horses were killed under him that day. He fought until night fell and crowned him with complete victory. As he made his way in the misty twilight across the battlefield he came to where the fighting had evidently been fiercest on the Saxon side, as could be seen by the bodies strewn over the frozen ground. There among them, covered by the now ragged and torn royal standard, lay Harold.

William was so moved by the terrible bloodshed that he decreed that henceforth Senlac would be known as Battle, or Bataille, one of the many Norman words which were to transform the language of England. On the spot where Harold lay William caused the high altar of the new Battle Abbey to be raised as a memorial to the king, which can still be seen today.

Although the Battle of Hastings was a watershed in English history, at the time it was not clear whether the country would rally again either under Edwin and Morcar in the north or under the new party for Edward the Confessor’s great-nephew Edgar the Atheling developing in London. For a month the Conqueror, as he would be known to later generations, bided his time, securing the country round Dover and Canterbury. Then he moved west out of Kent to London, encouraged by the submission of Winchester led by Edith, Harold’s sister and widow of Edward the Confessor.

Though the Conqueror burned Southwark–a constant feature of its history–he could not break through the guard into the walled city at the crossing which is now London Bridge. He therefore decided that the best way of taking London, then as now the key to England, was to ride west. He would lay waste the countryside round it on which the Londoners depended for their food. Great stretches of Surrey, Berkshire and north Hampshire, the fertile country that the people of Reada and Wocca had settled 600 years before, were set alight by descendants of England’s old enemies, the Vikings. When the duke crossed the Thames at Wallingford, apparently intending to return to London again and renew the attack, at the urging of Archbishop Stigand those leading the resistance decided to give in.

Edwin and Morcar had never meanwhile moved their troops south to rally the country. There was no real focus for a national resistance, and William the Conqueror benefited from that. Wealthy London magnates who had earlier declared the youthful Edgar the Atheling king, now accompanied Edwin and Morcar to meet William at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire in the shadow of the Chiltern Hills just west of what today is Hemel Hempstead. There they offered him the crown. Having sworn an oath to be the Conqueror’s men and hostages for peace, they watched as before their eyes William burned every grain of wheat between Berkhamsted and London, a distance of almost thirty miles, to make sure that there was no backsliding when he arrived in London.

On a bitterly cold Christmas Day in 1066 William the Conqueror became King William of England in Westminster Abbey. Although he had taken the crown by military conquest, initially he was very anxious to be considered the legitimate heir and to have the consent of his new subjects. At the moment of coronation he therefore ordered the Englishman Ealdred, archbishop of York and the Norman bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, who were jointly crowning him, to ask the people in the abbey if they accepted him as their king. Although it was unlikely that the English would say no when the abbey was ringed with William’s knights, the shouts of acclamation in English and Norman French alarmed those very knights. In a panic they started setting fire to the buildings surrounding the abbey. As the congregation rushed out, the Conqueror and the priests were left alone at the altar. Despite the confusion without, there was deep silence within. William was anointed king according to the Saxon tradition instituted by St Dunstan, and took the oath of the Anglo-Saxon kings to rule his people justly.

Although the Conqueror’s intention was to live in peace with his new subjects he could not disguise the fact that England was a country held by military garrison. Within three months William had built the White Tower out of earth and timber to overawe the inhabitants of London, which today is part of the complex known as the Tower of London. It was just one of the series of castles thrown up all over England to prevent rebellions.

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For several hundred years the elective kingship of Anglo-Saxon England and the existence of the witan had given England consultative traditions. But the new Norman king did not consult. He dictated. There was to be no more asking for the approval of the witan. The role of the new curia regis, the court of the king, was to implement, not to advise. In March 1067, six months after the Battle of Hastings, the two remaining great magnates of Anglo-Saxon England, Edwin and Morcar, as well as Edgar the Atheling and Archbishop Stigand, were forced to accompany the new master of England over the Channel to Normandy, where they were paraded in triumph.

In charge of England in the Conqueror’s absence were the new Norman earl of Kent, formerly Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, and William FitzOsbern, William’s seneschal or steward who became earl of Hereford. And soon, as the native English landowners began to rebel against harsh treatment by the Normans, William would return to extirpate the old English ruling class and replace them with a Norman military aristocracy. Most Anglo-Saxon buildings in brick and wood, especially the churches, were replaced by Norman stone. The Saxons became an underclass whose language, as we shall see, was the despised argot of the stable. French became the language of the new aristocracy.

The Normans inherited a country with the strongest government in eleventh-century Europe, whose distinctive efficiency continued to be outstanding despite the weakness of the last Old English kings themselves. The English administrative system would form an excellent base for the new Norman government. William was keen to be seen as the legitimate successor of Edward the Confessor and everything was done in the name of that king to wipe out the year of the usurper. But, whatever the justification, the inescapable fact remained that foreigners now ruled the land.

NORMAN AND ANGEVIN William I (1066–1087) 

Though peace had succeeded the Conquest, it was not to last. Outbreaks of resistance continued to flare up particularly as the new rulers turned a deaf ear to complaints from the Anglo-Saxons that Norman men-at-arms were abusing their positions, stealing from the English and carrying off their wives or turning humbler thanes out of their family homes. More dangerous were the attempts of regional leaders such as Edwin, Morcar and Edgar the Atheling and their supporters to regain control of the country by seeking assistance abroad. At Rouen William heard rumours that the king of Denmark and even his own cousin the count of Boulogne had been approached by the English to help them get rid of the Normans. In the west of England three sons of Harold who had been hiding in Ireland started laying waste the country. In the north a widespread resistance movement began, led by the northern earls. But once again, as at the Battle of Hastings, the failure of all these parties to make common cause would mean they could never succeed.

It was enough of a threat at the time, however, to oblige William to leave his wife Matilda of Flanders to govern Normandy with his eldest son Robert, while he returned to London. Impressing contemporaries by his refusal to wait for campaigning weather in the milder spring, at the beginning of January 1067 he sent one army north while he personally marched the second west. His progress through the country to Exeter was marked by the throwing up at regular strategic points of characteristic Norman castles. These were towers or keeps erected on top of a man-made mound, or in Norman Frenchmotte, and surrounded by a moat, their purpose to control the countryside. The use of slits for windows and the forbidding absence of decorative features proclaim their strictly military purpose.

Having successfully besieged Exeter and built the castle of Rougemont outside it, William hurried north to confront the greatest threat to his rule. Early in 1069 the Saxons massacred William’s governor in Durham, Robert de Comines, and all but two of his 500 men as they slept. The English population of York soon followed suit, rising against its foreign garrison and destroying it and burning York Minster. When Harold’s sons landed again at Plymouth while the fleet of the King of Denmark sailed unopposed up the Humber river alongside ships loyal to Edgar the Atheling, William’s control of his new domain seemed suddenly in doubt. But, acting with his usual decisiveness, he bought off the Danes and persuaded them, with the English leaders, to retreat up to the Tyne. Then he himself proceeded to York where the local Saxon leader Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon had been directing operations and in fact doing much of the fighting himself.

This massive slayer of Normans so impressed William that he took him into his service and married him to his niece Judith. But he loosed a dreadful vengeance on the Northumbrians for their defiance. At Christmas, the season of goodwill, the Conqueror sat in grim and solitary state in the empty city of York planning wholesale destruction for a hundred miles around. Every day Norman soldiers were sent out to kill every living thing in the area: men, women, children and all their livestock. Houses and all fruits, conserves and grain were to be burned, ploughs broken and the country from the Humber to the Tees, from the Wear to the Tyne, to be made a desert. Fourteen years later, in the Domesday Book–the celebrated record of landholding in England compiled for tax purposes–all of that country had only the terrible Latin wordvasta(meaning ruined or destroyed) to describe it. For fifty years nothing grew there. This episode became known as the Harrying of the North. It was intended to ensure that its inhabitants never rose again against the Norman occupying power.

Nevertheless, thanks to an indomitable Lincolnshire thane named Hereward the Wake, one little place in England held out against William and all his military devices until 1071. That was the tiny Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire, which was then surrounded on every side by impassable marshes and wild fens. It became a symbol of English national resistance. That its leader’s name Hereward the Wake passed into semi-mythical folklore on the level of Robin Hood and King Arthur indicates the strength of emotion surrounding him. Unlike those characters, however, Hereward was a real person whose existence is solidly documented. He had returned from abroad to find his mother turned out of the family home by Norman upstarts who were now themselves living in it. Enraged by her treatment Hereward began harassing the Normans. After the Harrying of the North had driven the two northern earls Edwin and Morcar out of their country they joined him with their followers and Ely became the centre of English resistance.

In the end William could trust only himself to defeat the wily Saxon. He blockaded the Wash for weeks and every little inlet that led into the Fens, trying to starve the English out. But though by then Hereward and the rest of the resistance were living on roots they never gave up. They were so successful in ambushing William’s men when they tried to build a causeway to the island that it began to be rumoured that Hereward had magic powers. In fact the Normans might never have captured Hereward at all had not the monks on the Isle of Ely betrayed him. Unlike Hereward they missed their luxurious diet of fine white bread and venison and good French wines. They sent a message to William revealing the existence of a secret passage which ran between the island and the Normans’ camp. In the middle of the night William and his men poured on to the island, capturing Hereward as he lay hidden in the reeds.

This marked the real end of the English national resistance. Hereward was treated leniently as William was impressed by his courage, and he is believed to have died on one of the king’s campaigns in France to secure the borders of Normandy. But since England continued to be periodically shaken by regional rebellions, minor though they were, William retreated from his policy of using the Anglo-Saxons to govern England for him. The Conquest was still a very recent event and had yet to take permanent root among the people. Owing to the interest neighbouring countries like Denmark and Flanders continued to take in rebel conspirators’ plans, in 1074 when the earls of Hereford and Norfolk and the treacherous Earl Waltheof tried to seize power, William’s attitude to his newly acquired country changed.

Previously, in exchange for paying a redemptive tax or geld many Saxon thanes had been permitted by the Normans to retain their old lands. The shires and shire courts had continued to be largely administered by English officials. Although there had been some land redistribution to reward William’s followers it was on a relatively small scale. But from 1075 onwards the 4,000 thanes who had been the important landowners in England under Harold began to be dispossessed of their ancient estates. Their fields, pastures, meadows and forests would be consolidated into far larger blocs and transferred to the ownership of 200 Norman barons and their own small armies of soldiers. William now believed that only Normans could be trusted to control the rebellious country of England for him, through the military landholding system called feudalism.

Under the Saxon kings land had been owned freely, despite the ancient defensive obligation of the fyrd and the duty to maintain roads and bridges. The Duke of Normandy introduced to England the Norman legal custom in which all landholding carried a military obligation. It was described as being ‘held of the king’. Land was granted by William to his followers on the specific condition that its owner served the lord above him in war. It bound the whole of England into one military unit and could have been achieved only in a revolution such as had just taken place in England. For each unit of land or ‘fief’ that the new Norman landowner held in England, he was obliged to put an armed soldier or knight at William’s disposal to fight for him for so many days a year, and he had to take an oath to be faithful to the lord he held it of, called the oath of fidelity or fealty. The man who took it did homage to the man above him, who was called his liege lord.

The Norman feudal system had accounted for the ease with which William the Conqueror had raised his invading army in 1066. He had called on the knights’ service owed to him by the great Norman lords who held land from him, which meant they had to be ready for war, complete with arms and horses, at all times. The king was at the top of the system and below him were the most powerful nobles called the tenants-in-chief, each bound to supply him with up to 1,500 knights. Many of those 1,500 knights would be supplied from among the tenants below who owed the lord above them knight service.

By 1085 not only had all the land been redistributed, but the official or government class responsible for royal business in the shires was now composed of all Norman Frenchmen rather than English. Shires had also been renamed counties, after the Conqueror’s local representative, the vicomte, who to begin with took over the functions of the sheriff. But, though county remains another word for shire, the office of vicomte soon melted away, and the title sheriff returned. Over the previous ten years the population of England had become used to the sight of large numbers of Norman French officials guarded by soldiers arriving from London to gather information to facilitate the transfer of land in their area. The Normans called up what became known as juries (from the Latinjuro, I swear)–that is, panels of inquiry which sat in the open air on the village green to determine what the boundaries, the ancient rights and the labour obligations were for each estate, whether belonging to a lord or a churchman.

The Normans’ claim to England was based on conquest. At the same time they were natural lawyers and immensely businesslike. They were obsessed with legitimacy and believed in doing everything by the book. Even though a Norman lord might be taking over a Saxon property, they intended services and dues to carry on as before or ‘as in the days of King Edward’, in that phrase so resonant of legitimacy for the Normans. William was particularly keen to sort out the large estate owners’ rights when it came to the law of the land. The legal powers of the King of England were far greater than those of other western European monarchs. Although the Anglo-Saxon lord was entitled to hold his own courts to judge disputes over land in his domain, to punish thieves and to assess stolen goods, the English national custom had been established for centuries that those rights were granted by the king. The king and his officials were considered to be responsible for keeping the peace. Moreover, the King of England was entitled to raise taxes in every part of the country. When his instructions or writs came to the shire court, now called the county court, the English tradition was that they were to be obeyed. There was no need for soldiers to enforce his writs.

At Christmas 1085, with the land transfer complete, the king held the last of his tri-annual councils with all the most important new landholders or tenants-in-chief. William was recorded as having ‘held very deep speech with his council about this land–how it was peopled, and with what sort of men’. He was now in a position to send further posses of government officials among the newly Normanized English to set up an enlarged version of the shire court in every county. They were to assess everyone for tax, from cottagers to lords, and once again to obtain evidence on oath about every item of the countryside from a gathering of the propertied locals, evidence relating both to twenty years before, in 1066, and to the current year, 1086. The court consisted of local lords, members of all the hundred courts within the shire and six of the wealthier peasants, as well as the sheriff. The Norman commissioners were to have no interests in the particular shire and the facts were to be checked by another group of commissioners.

The survey with its descriptions of the land twenty years before in 1066, and at the present day reveals how completely during that period the native aristocracy had been displaced by Norman warriors. It also demonstrates the Normans’ powers of organization and their interest in statistics, which were without precedent in medieval times. Indeed not until the nineteenth century would such attention to detail be displayed again. The survey rapidly became known to the irreverent English as the Domesday Book. Affronted by the level of detail required by the Norman commissioners, down to how many geese and pigs a cottager owned, one Anglo-Saxon wit remarked that it was as close a record as the Recording Angel would make at the crack of doom on the Day of Judgement, or Doomsday.

Although some counties are missing from the Domesday Book, it gives us an amazingly detailed picture of England, listing all the woodland, pasture, millponds and fishponds, towns and villages and even the names of the inhabitants, English and Norman alike–many of which remain the same today. Reflecting the redistribution of land among a smaller number of Norman warriors England is treated as a country which from now on was to be organized in terms of manors. Each manor is the basis for an assessment of subordinate hides. The Norman commissioners divided the majority of the population into the following main categories: villein, cottars or cottagers, and slaves. The largest group were the villein or villeins. Although by the thirteenth century villeins had become synonymous with serfs, who being the property of their landlord had no independent legal existence, in 1086 they were free men. They ranged from tenant farmers, who held their land in return for services to their landlords, to small landholders, who owned the title to their land outright. Rents, labour services and plough teams were all assessed to see whether William could get any more money out of his new country.

Thanks to Domesday survey, which is held in the National Archives in London, England has the most complete picture of a country in Europe at that time. Completed in a little over a year it is a monument not only to Norman efficiency but to the tremendous tradition of English local government which had flourished since Alfred’s time. The already extremely well-organized and mature institutions of Anglo-Saxon local government with its hundred and shire courts could not have been better suited to William’s autocratic purposes. But the sort of changes William was rushing through, albeit in an orderly fashion, created such a volume of parchment that by the end of his reign the king’s writing office, inherited from Edward the Confessor, could no longer be attached to the royal household. It had to become an independent department called the royal Chancery, staffed by clerks trained to draft the king’s directives and send writs to the shires.

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In August 1086 William considered that the process of settling England in the Norman way had been completed. He called an assembly at Salisbury of all the chief landowners in the country and the smaller barons who held land from the tenants-in-chief. Although not every single landowner could attend, a significant number were there, and each swore a personal oath of allegiance to William, on his knees before his king, who held the man’s hands between his own. This was the remarkable innovation of William the Conqueror and demonstrated the exceptional nature of English feudalism, that all were made aware that they owed their loyalty to the king above their immediate liege lord.

The extraordinary scene on Salisbury Plain of all the landowners in England kneeling before the by now extremely corpulent figure of the Norman king represented a triumphant climax to the Norman Conquest. The rebellions had all petered out and the Danes had finally abandoned their claim to the throne, their last attempt at an invasion being the year before. William had pushed back the frontier with Wales, built a castle at Cardiff and made the Welsh princes and the Scottish king do homage to him or risk further warfare and damage to their countries. All of this was an indication of the strength of the Norman hold on England, and it should also remind us that William had brought peace to England. Most of the English might be in a disadvantaged position, but the fact was that for almost a century England had been at the mercy of powerful foreign invaders. By the 1070s she was the protected centrepiece of a great transcontinental empire as widespread as Cnut’s had been. Unlike Cnut’s, however, William’s empire tore England away from her Scandinavian and Germanic roots. With great consequences for her future she was thrust back into the heart of Latin civilization and the traditions of scholarship which stretched from Roman times.

Nevertheless, for all the positive long-term effects of the Conquest, whatever their circumstances, most Englishmen and women suffered under the Normans. One of the most dramatic effects of Norman rule was the gradual enserfment of the free English tenant farmers, who in 1066 consisted of almost half the population. They who for centuries had played an important part in local government in the hundred and shire court were by 1200 denied access to the king’s courts because they were no longer allowed to call themselves freemen. The term villein had come to mean a serf who was tied to his lord’s domain by the services he performed for him, whose disputes could be judged only in the manorial court. Thus although under the Normans the Saxon practice of slavery died out, because Norman ecclesiastics found it offensive, for 40 per cent of Englishmen and women their freedom was greatly curtailed. Under the Normans the manor court slowly replaced the ancient hundred court, and the lord of the manor alone now decided what previously had been decided by a group of small farmers and landowners together.

Most English saints’ days were suppressed by the new Norman priests, while English went into temporary abeyance as a written language. Whereas poetry and histories likeThe Anglo-Saxon Chroniclehad been written in Old English, books in Norman England were now written in French, as that was the language of the court.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicleitself, which had been written in monasteries since Alfred’s time, falls silent by the mid-twelfth century. For the next hundred years English went underground, becoming the language of the uneducated.

Even their native forests were taken away from the English, owing to William’s passion for hunting. Until the Conquest, firewood and wild game from the vast forests still covering the country had been a traditionally free source of fuel and food. But William introduced laws forbidding the use of bows and arrows within them, and the presence of hunting dogs. Anyone who cut firewood from the forest or poached deer might be blinded, mutilated or executed. ‘He loved the tall stags as if he were their father,’ declaredThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

To make matters worse the Conqueror destroyed churches and towns in Hampshire over a distance of thirty miles in order to create what we still call the New Forest, though it is now 900 years old. Deer roamed while people starved. William’s new forest laws incurred much hatred among the English, but his love of hunting made him unwilling to proceed in his usual cautious fashion. He turned the forests all over England into royal reserves that only he and his friends could hunt in.

William the Conqueror’s tendency was to scatter the manors of his chief men all over the country to prevent regional loyalties becoming a threat. However, for the dangerous border lands with Wales and Scotland this arrangement was modified. For many centuries they would be in a state of perpetual warfare. On the marcher lands, so called because they marched with the Welsh frontier, lords like Roger de Montmorency were allowed to own huge estates concentrated in one area. There the local landowner was responsible for what was in effect a private army keeping the Welsh at bay. These territories were known as the palatine earldoms, and their rulers were far more like the independent barons of Normandy. But once again William’s subtle mind saw a way of cutting down on the power of the palatine earls: where possible he made churchmen palatine rulers. The most famous of these was the Prince Bishop of Durham. By Norman law priests were forbidden to marry and have children, so they could not become a dynastic threat to the eminence of the king’s own family.

The last great change the Norman Conquest brought to England was the reform of the English Church. One of the justifications for the Norman invasion had been the Godwins’ abuses. Having obtained the papal blessing for the Conquest William had to fall in with the wishes of the papacy, which under the direction of Pope Gregory VII (formerly known as Hildebrand, archdeacon of Rome) had embarked on a hard-hitting programme of reforms. In any case they corresponded to the Duke of Normandy’s own austere disposition. William was a deeply religious man and disapproved of corruption. But he waited until the country was quiet before removing the illegitimate Stigand, who had used his influence among the English to secure a peaceful acceptance of the Conquest.

From Normandy William imported his friend the great churchman Lanfranc, Abbot of Caen, to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc made a great many changes to the Church organization. In recognition of population shifts, the residences of English bishops were transferred to what had become the leading towns of dioceses–with the Bishop of Lichfield, for example, moving to Chester–and Lanfranc replaced the slack English clergy with the better-trained Normans, thereby depriving the English of parish priests who spoke their own language. Lanfranc was an Italian lawyer who had attended the law school of Pavia and who very late in life had been seized by the religious impulse. He had made the monastery at Bec in Normandy one of the great centres of religious learning of the eleventh century. Possessed of a subtle mind to match his master’s, he reformed the practices of the English Church along Hildebrandine lines. One of Gregory’s VII’s profound beliefs was that the priest should be better behaved than other men–in view of his high calling he should adhere to a more exacting law than ordinary people. Corrupt practices such as simony–that is, selling pardons for sins–were no longer permitted. He insisted on a return to the ideal of celibacy in the clergy. The priest’s wife and children, who had been a common sight in every village, were seen no more.

The marking out of the clergy as a separate caste meant that the Norman Conquest put an end to the seamless robe of government between king and churchmen that had prevailed in Anglo-Saxon England–although priests and clerks continued to serve until the sixteenth century as what were in effect civil servants. Bishops no longer presided over the shire courts as they had under Anglo-Saxon kings. The Church obtained her own courts from William, with jurisdiction to try men in holy orders, disputes over marriage, and any spiritual matters.

Two systems of law thus developed side by side in England. Canon law, practised in the ecclesiastical or Church courts, contrasted strongly with what became known in the thirteenth century as the common law, which was by and large ancient English custom. Canon law derived from the principles of Roman law, which had continued to be studied at centres of learning such as Pavia on the continent where Lanfranc himself had been trained. And it was canon law in which the Church clerks, who until the sixteenth century would provide the trained minds essential for the nascent English civil service, were educated.

In contrast English common law had always had a common-sense aspect to it, since it had always been adjudicated by tenant farmers. It was never particularly precise in legal terms. That imprecision was increased by the fact that the justice meted out by the early Norman kings from what became called the King’s Bench was at first fairly informal. It was decided after a discussion with whatever baron happened to be attending court at the time. Members of the royal council or Curia Regis might send clerks into the counties and there take evidence from the sheriff about a dispute which would be deliberated on locally or perhaps brought back to London for a meeting of the Council.

The higher level of education enjoyed by the Church’s trained clerks was useful to the Normans in an infinite number of ways. But one feature of the far-reaching Hildebrandine reforms was less pleasing to William. Pope Gregory’s belief in the superiority of the clergy to the ordinary man led him to make repeated attempts to liberate the Church from the power of the secular or earthly ruler, by ending their right to confer on bishops and abbots the ring and staff which were their badges of office. He had already clashed with the emperor Henry IV over this principle in the struggle known as the Investiture Contest which rocked Germany and Italy for nearly fifty years.

In William Pope Gregory believed he had a captive ruler. Gregory claimed that not only should the Duke of Normandy abandon the episcopal investiture ceremonies but he should do homage to the pope: the duke’s appeal to the Church Curia to support his invasion of England was an implicit acknowledgement of the jurisdiction of the papal court. In a typically ingenious and complicated piece of exposition the best legal minds in Rome further sought to argue that since England had previously paid a tax to Rome known as Peter’s Pence this proved that England had previously been the vassal of Rome.

But William the Conqueror was far too shrewd to be caught by Pope Gregory. Just as with the Norman barons he had every intention of limiting the Church’s power. In a brief note to Rome he let it be known that he would pay Peter’s Pence, which he acknowledged had been in arrears for some time, but that the ancient custom of the English kings prevented him doing homage as the pope’s vassal. From then on William did very much as he pleased. He gave orders that no pope should be recognized in England until the king himself had done so. Church councils were not to pass laws without the king’s express permission; likewise papal bulls and missives from the pope to the people were to be distributed only when the king had decided that he approved of the content.

The pope generally tolerated William’s behaviour because he advanced the cause of the Church much more than he damaged it, not least in the way he used the clergy as clerks to handle the increasing amounts of government business. He therefore allowed William to invest English bishops with their badges of office even though the German emperor was not permitted to do so. For her part the Church, as one of the most important underlying forces which kept society together, promoted Norman government among the English people.

Owing to the Conqueror’s alliance with the Church the Normans were tremendous builders of churches and abbeys. Many of England’s most famous cathedrals were begun or built just after the Conquest. During the 1070s, Canterbury Cathedral was rebuilt, and Lincoln Cathedral and Old Sarum Cathedral, which lies in ruins above the town of Salisbury, begun. Huge stone churches which looked more like fortresses, in the style called Romanesque that the Normans introduced, sprang up all over England. Romanesque churches, which had little or no decoration other than chevron cross-hatching, were characterized by immensely thick pillars, rounded arches and a very long nave. Visible a long way off, they dominated the landscape almost as much as the Norman castles. The next decade saw the grey stone Norman cathedrals rise at Ely, Worcester and Gloucester. Tewkesbury Abbey was also built, and the cathedrals at St Albans and Rochester were restored.

At the same time the Normans pushed on with their equally distinctive programme of castle-building. In the process they knocked down most Saxon country houses, which is why so few remain. In their place they erected strong forbidding castles in the Norman fashion, some in stone. Towns and commerce likewise flourished under the influence of the energetic Normans, who like their Viking ancestors were keen traders. Jewish merchants returned to England after an absence of 600 years, having left with the Romans.

Despite the sufferings of the Saxon The Chapel of St John built around 1080 in the White people, the Normans had found plenty about England which they admired enough to want to adapt, particularly the Anglo-Saxon political institutions. Within a generation mixed marriages between Normans and Saxons, especially Saxon heiresses, were common. One of the most famous Conquest artefacts, the Bayeux Tapestry, is of entirely English workmanship, even though it was commissioned by William’s half-brother, the Norman Bishop Odo. It shows the high level of artistry in tapestry-making in England and was probably sewn in Canterbury. Two hundred and fifty feet long by twenty feet wide, full of verve and drama, it is also a subtle depiction of the story of the Conquest. As such it is one of England’s most important pieces of historical evidence.

In 1087, the year after the Domesday Book was completed, the mighty duke returned to Normandy for what turned out to be his last campaign. He died attempting to conquer a disputed area of land, the county of Maine, which abuts Normandy. Twenty years before at the time of Hastings the King of France had been weak. But by 1087 a new king, Philip I, was on the throne. This mischief-maker was delighted to help William’s eldest son Robert, the heir to Normandy, stir up trouble against a father who gave him no responsibility, who kept the reins of power firmly in his own hands, and who, to punish him, had deliberately arranged for the kingdom of England to be inherited by his son William Rufus. Now there was open warfare between the conqueror and the French king.

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William had always been intending to attack the city of Mantes which had previously belonged to Normandy. But legend has it that the King of France made a cruel joke about William’s grossness which got to his ears. The size of his stomach by now was indeed making it hard for him to keep in his saddle and he no longer got about as he had in his younger days. At Rouen, confined to his palace, the duke heard Philip of France’s mocking bon mot: ‘The King of England keeps his bed like a woman after she has had a baby.’ William sent a deceptively mild message in return. ‘Tell Philip that when I go to Mass after the confinement, I’ll make him an offering of 100,000 candles.’ A month later he had surrounded Mantes. Then he set fire to it–a hundred thousand candles indeed.

This gesture proved William’s undoing. His horse stumbled on an ember and threw him so badly that he suffered fatal internal injuries. Watching over his deathbed was William’s favourite son Henry, later to become Henry I. His calculating and legalistic tendencies were always appreciated by a father who had similar qualities. But meanwhile the Duke of Normandy’s stout son William Rufus, named for his red hair and red face, the heir to the English throne, had immediately hightailed it to England to make sure no Anglo-Saxon seized the crown before he did.

William II (1087–1100) 

The reign of William Rufus was a very different affair from his father’s. Superficially he resembled him in so far as he was a fearless and victorious warrior and strong king. He was adroit enough to make himself popular among the English by freeing important English leaders like Morcar. He added to his French possessions, and was even more of a threat to the Welsh and Scottish kingdoms than the Conqueror had been. He defeated and killed Malcolm Canmore, King of the Scots, who was constantly invading England, and in 1092 he reconquered Cumberland, formerly an independent principality founded by the Strathclyde Welsh. Carlisle became an English city, and obtained its own bishop in the next reign. At William Rufus’ cosmopolitan court the abacus was used for the first time to calculate what was owed the king. During his reign the construction of Durham Cathedral began, the first western European building to use ribbed vaulting for the roof.

But it soon became clear that the new king was a poor version of his great father. He was a greedy man who had none of the sense of fairness which had informed his father, harsh though he was. Although he built Westminster Hall in 1097 as the place where he and his advisers could mete out justice, William Rufus’ judgements were generally rather self-interested. Lacking his father’s self-discipline and continence, the new king was always in need of money to finance his extravagant lifestyle. Aided and abetted by an equally unscrupulous minor Norman clerk named Ranulf, who soon became his justiciar (or chief minister), a term used for the first time in English history, William Rufus was soon causing the country to groan under his demands. Ranulf was nicknamed Flambard, because, reported the monk Ordericus Vitalis, ‘like a devouring flame he tormented the people, and turned the daily chants of the Church into lamentation’. He encouraged the king to swell his coffers by interpreting the Domesday Book information more stringently, especially in relation to the monasteries, to which they felt the old regime’s inspectors had been too lenient.

Thanks to Flambard’s low but ingenious mind the two introduced new ways of making the country yield more gold for the king than ever before. Feudal dues that William I had demanded only where the estate could bear them were used to enrich the king at the expense of his barons. As with death duties today, feudal law stipulated that on the death of an important landowner or tenant-in-chief a ‘relief’ or tax was payable to the king before the heir could inherit his father’s estate. These were now demanded without mercy. Under William Rufus the property of minors supposedly in the king’s safekeeping until they came of age were run to rack and ruin or their woods cut down and sold for the king’s profit. Heiresses were married against their will to cronies of the king.

In 1088, a year after he succeeded to the throne, William II’s strenuous demands provoked an unsuccessful rising by his tenants-in-chief in the name of his weaker brother Robert, who was now ruling Normandy. Led by the king’s half-uncle Odo of Bayeux, these barons made the revolt an excuse to terrorize the country. Alarmed at their strength William cleverly defeated them by promising the humbler people of England that the forest laws would be less harshly enforced and some of the more stringent taxes lifted, with the result that those who had no wish to be at the mercy of marauding armed horsemen supported the king. Subsequently many of the most important tenants-in-chief lost their lands and were banished overseas. In 1095, however, a new rebellion broke out, led by Robert de Mowbray, the Earl of Northumberland and directed against the king’s tyranny. This too was unsuccessful. Even so, William failed to make de Mowbray surrender his castle of Bamburgh, so he ruthlessly built alongside it a new castle which became known as Malvoisin or Evil Neighbour. When eventually de Mowbray was forced to leave the castle, the soldiers of Malvoisin pounced and captured him. This was the last challenge to the king during his reign.

Because of William Rufus’ strong-armed approach to his tenants-in-chief, many of the Norman adventurers who still had that Viking zest to conquer decided to try their luck beyond the king’s reach by invading Wales and seizing land from the Welsh princes. Like the palatine earls they became a law unto themselves. These marcher lordships became the equivalent of little independent countries, run from the local castle–an economical way of using the energies of Norman knights, whose educational training was for warfare. They also had the advantage of keeping down the Welsh. From this period date the lordships of Montgomery, Brecon and Pembroke.

Not only did William Rufus antagonize the great barons. He also shocked and disgusted the English by his treatment of the Church, which he delighted in mocking from the decadent environs of his court. On Archbishop Lanfranc’s death the king refused for four years to appoint a new incumbent at Canterbury. This remissness, instigated by Ranulf Flambard, enabled him to benefit from the right of regale, by which all the rents of the wealthy archdiocese came into the king’s hands for as long as the see remained vacant. It was only because William became extremely ill unexpectedly and came to believe that he was on the point of death that he was frightened into good behaviour and agreed to appoint the best possible candidate for the archbishopric.

This was Abbot Anselm, from Lanfranc’s old Abbey of Bec in Normandy. The saintly Anselm did not want to come to England, because he was sure there would be a personality clash. He was, he said, ‘a weak old sheep, who should not be yoked to a fierce young bull like the King of England’. But William would not be denied, and he was soon ruing his decision. The new archbishop was appalled by the state of the English Churchunder the Conqueror’s son and by the immoral quality of the court, where the questions of greatest interest seemed to be whether the king crimped his hair and whether one should copy the new ram’s-horn shoes he had designed, whose toes curled up so extravagantly that they were almost impossible to walk in. Meanwhile, though Canterbury was now occupied, a great many other sees remained empty so that their rents could go to the king. Although Archbishop Anselm was a mild-mannered man, as head of the Church of England he could not countenance this continued abuse of Church lands. But the king thwarted his attempts to call a council of bishops to censure his behaviour, and said that the abbeys were his in any case–to which Archbishop Anselm replied that they were his only to protect, for they belonged to God.

Unlike the case with Lanfranc and William the Conqueror, neither side was capable of seeing the other’s point of view. The mounting irritation between king and archbishop reached new heights on the election of Pope Urban II. Owing to the continuing battle for power between the papacy and the secular ruler in the investiture contest, the German emperor had named his own rival pope, Clement. Archbishop Anselm was determined to receive thepallium, the badge of office, from Urban, but the red-faced Rufus flew into a rage and forbade him to leave the country because he had recognized neither Urban nor Clement as pope. In 1095 the king called a council of all the tenants-in-chief and all the bishops at Rockingham Castle, to determine whose authority over the archbishop was greater, the pope’s or the king’s. No solution was reached. Opinion was evenly balanced, with the barons wishing to limit the authority of William Rufus and the bishops anxious to curry favour with him. Most importantly every encounter with William II convinced Anselm that he should not yield to him.

Relations continued to deteriorate until 1097 when Archbishop Anselm refused point blank to send the money and the soldiers that feudal dues required of him for one of William Rufus’ campaigns against the Welsh. When William threatened to take the archbishop to court, Anselm responded that only the pope had sufficient authority to settle their dispute. Then the archbishop fled to Rome, fearing that the king was so incensed that he might have killed him. He remained there for the rest of William’s reign, leaving the Church in England once more without a head and enabling William to seize all the archbishopric’s property again.

Ambitious and energetic, for some time William Rufus had been casting covetous eyes at his elder brother Robert’s hereditary duchy of Normandy. Robert’s financial incompetence soon played into his hands. The sale by the duke of some of Normandy’s most important possessions–the Cotentin Peninsula and the Avranche–to William Rufus’ younger brother Henry gave the English king the perfect excuse to invade Normandy. Objecting to Henry’s hold over their common ancestral lands, he was paid off with a large portion of eastern Normandy. And Duke Robert soon surrendered the rest of Normandy into his younger brother’s hands, temporarily at least, by mortgaging it to him in order to finance a crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land.

Like many of his contemporaries throughout western Europe, including Edgar the Atheling, Duke Robert was obsessed by the idea of liberating Jerusalem from its new Seljuk Turk overlords. Where previously Christian pilgrims had been allowed to visit the Holy Places, the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount Calvary and the tomb of Christ, the Turks were making access almost impossible. Moreover, Christian pilgrims were being killed and sold into slavery all over the east. In 1095, preaching in the market place of Clermont to an enormous gathering of nobles, burghers and farmers, Pope Urban II launched what became known as the First Crusade, urgently demanding soldiers for Christ to liberate the Holy Land from the Infidel, or Unfaithful.

All knights were to have a red cross sewn on to their surcoat over their chainmail, representing the cross Christ had died on, to show that they were Crusaders. In return for fighting a holy war they would be absolved of some of the sins that would prevent them entering heaven. In an era dominated by the Church there could be no greater appeal for the Norman military caste whose existence was dedicated to warfare. The First Crusade was a great success. By 1099 it had expelled the Turks and set up a Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem under Godfrey de Bouillon. Meanwhile in his brother’s stead, his creditor William was returning Normandy to order. He had recaptured Le Mans, attacked France and to the French king’s alarm seemed about to take over the sprawling lands of Aquitaine. The Duke of Aquitaine wished like Robert to raise money for the Crusade and had decided to follow suit and mortgage his lands to William. This would have brought within the King of England’s control all territory down to the Spanish border.

But at the height of his power William Rufus died out hunting on 2 August 1100, the victim of an anonymous arrow in the New Forest. Although legend accords Walter Tyrrel the role of bowman, if he fired the arrow it seems far more likely that he was acting at the behest of the king’s younger brother Henry, who was one of the party. The suspicious circumstances and lack of ceremony which surrounded William Rufus’ end suggest that his killing may have been the result of a conspiracy. For this powerful king was left to die alone while all his courtiers and his brother Henry abandoned him. He was found at the spot still marked Rufus Stone today by a humble charcoal-burner, the lowest occupation in Norman England. The charcoal-burner, whose name was Purkess, lugged the king’s body to nearby Winchester on a crude wooden cart. But even in Winchester there was no public mourning and William Rufus’ body was buried without a service inside the cathedral.

The dead king’s brother Henry was already at Winchester by the time the cart arrived. He had galloped as fast as he could to the royal Treasury, which ever since the Wessex kings had been kept in that city, for traditionally whoever held the Treasury could be crowned. He persuaded local nobles to proclaim him king as was customary in the Anglo-Saxon monarchy. Henry was only just in time, for his brother Robert’s man arrived immediately afterwards, intent on claiming the throne on behalf of the duke. By 5 August Henry had been crowned.

Henry I (1100–1135) 

Court historians later noted that as a child Henry I had enjoyed seeing his brothers squabble among themselves because then he knew he would get the better of them. The new king’s every action was cautious, premeditated and calculated to serve his own ends. Though he was no scholar the nickname Beauclerk, which was applied to him from the fourteenth century, suggests a reputation for natural cleverness. Henry was less impetuous than William Rufus. Although he was just as grasping, he saw that he should proceed more shrewdly than his brother if he wished to rule peacefully.

Henry had inherited his father’s deep respect for acting within the letter of the law. His first action was to restore the Norman kings to popularity in England by publishing a Charter of Liberties in which he promised to end William Rufus’ oppressive practices and return to the days of Edward the Confessor. As an earnest of this he threw Ranulf Flambard into his father’s White Tower and married Princess Edith of Scotland, sister of King Edgar and great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside. This united the ancient West Saxon blood with that of the new Normans and was another instance of Henry’s far-sighted calculation. The closeness thus achieved between the two courts also had the unlooked-for effect of peacefully opening up Scotland to Norman adventurers. Edith changed her name to Matilda, to make herself sound more Norman, while her second brother David (who succeeded Edgar) married the daughter of Earl Waltheof and did homage to Henry as his overlord.

Within the year these measures designed to win popularity among Henry’s subjects had paid off. For encouraged by the ingratiating Ranulf Flambard, who somewhat surprisingly had succeeded in escaping from the Tower, Duke Robert made a bid for the throne, landing at Portsmouth with an army raised from many of the Norman barons who held land in both countries. As a hero of the First Crusade and elder brother to Henry, Robert could have been a most dangerous rival.

But Henry’s Charter had done its work. The Church, which had been left alone by the new king, encouraged the English to rally to Henry, a sign of its favour being the return of the Archbishop of Canterbury from exile in Rome. Archbishop Anselm put himself at the head of the English people, declaring that they were not afraid of the Normans and would fight them if their English Henry would lead them. When Robert saw that he had no hope of defeating the massed ranks of the English he made a truce with his powerful brother and signed a legal document in which he abandoned his claim to the throne. Then, in return for a pension, he gave his lands in the Cotentin to England and meekly retired to Normandy, leaving the Anglo-Norman barons who had supported him to face Henry’s wrath.

Because he was a thoughtless sort of fellow Duke Robert had not understood the terrible risk his followers had taken. To set them all an example not to meddle with him again, Henry destroyed the massive holdings of a great baron named Robert de Bellême, whose lands covered much of Sussex, a great deal of Normandy and the semi-independent palatine earldom of Shrewsbury adjoining Wales. De Bellême’s private army, given royal permission to keep the Welsh behind their borders, was too much of a threat to the king, and Henry now mounted a concerted attack on him. He seized all his castles, including the one which still stands at Arundel in West Sussex, laid siege to his newly built fortress towering over the Severn at Bridgnorth, abolished the palatine earldom of Shrewsbury and finally drove de Bellême himself out of the country and back to Normandy.

Like most Norman barons, however, de Bellême was too powerful and restless a character to remain quiet for long. Once in Normandy he began making war on Duke Robert and taking parts of the duchy for himself. This gave Henry the perfect excuse for interfering in Normandy, which under his brother was dissolving into anarchy. In 1106 at Tinchebrai Henry decisively defeated Duke Robert in battle, condemned him to thirty years’ captivity in Cardiff Castle and formally annexed the duchy to England. Henceforth for almost a hundred years, until 1204 when Henry I’s great-grandson John lost the duchy to the French king, England and Normandy were ruled by the same government.

These upsets prejudiced Henry against the feudal barons, whose heroics his cold and rational character in any case despised. His firm actions had convinced them not to revolt again. For the rest of his reign he would make a point of surrounding himself with men of more modest birth, knights and clerks chosen for their learnedness who were reliant on his patronage to advance them, rather than on the threat of a thousand men-at-arms. Henry’s reign saw the rise of educated men like Roger of Salisbury and the emergence of a far more businesslike government. Roger, who became Bishop of Salisbury, was Henry’s justiciar. But he was a very different character from Flambard, being possessed of a superbly constructive organizing mind. Thanks to him the early twelfth century saw the appearance of the first national law courts, as well as the government department called the Exchequer, the precursor of the Treasury.

The Curia Regis, or king’s court, had arisen out of the deliberations of the king with his most intimate friends, the leading barons, in council, and these embraced the hearing of legal disputes. William Rufus had built Westminster Hall to allow the king’s judgement to be given in full view of the people. But in the reign of Henry I the rapid expansion of legal training, particularly on the continent, and of canon law in the separate Church courts began to influence the development of the criminal law. A new professional class of lawyers grew up, better equipped to deal with legal problems along the lines of universal principles. Trained judges in London started taking the place of the king in determining the legal issues of tenants-in-chief or deciding disputes appealed from the shire or county court. The tradition was begun, which is still carried on today, 800 years later, of justices going on circuit round the country to dispense the king’s justice locally. The king’s justice tended to be more impartial or disinterested, and by the time of his death the improvements he had introduced to the justice system ensured that Henry would be known as the Lion of Justice.

The new government department known as the Exchequer collected tax. It was called the Exchequer for a very simple reason. Unlike the Arab world, the western Europeans had yet to discover the number zero. This made even simple arithmetic a difficult exercise. The way to get round it was to use either an abacus or, as Henry did, a chequered cloth. On this cloth, which looked not unlike a chessboard, counters representing units of money were moved about: this was how twelfth-century national accounting was performed. In the new stone hall of Westminster, business continued even when the court was travelling. Twice a year, under the chairmanship of the king or his justiciar, officials called the barons of the Exchequer sat at a table with counters and the chequered cloth, going through with all the sheriffs the taxes, rents, fines and debts due to the crown. Every penny had to be accounted for.

In every way Henry’s reign marks a greater precision in the practice of government. Thanks to Bishop Roger of Salisbury’s methodical nature, for the first time in English history since the Roman occupation we can actually read the government accounts. By 1130 they were written down on a very long piece of parchment or fine hide which was then rolled up for easy storage. As this resembled a pipe, the accounts are known as the Pipe Rolls. For the first time too, we have a clearer idea about life at the royal court in the early twelfth century, because we possess a record of the duties of the royal household written after Henry’s death. This record is particularly important given that, on his death, England fell into chaos and records were not kept for a while.

Unlike today, when the monarch and her chief minister live at fixed addresses, Henry was always travelling round the country in the fashion of his new circuit judges, staying at the royal residences such as his abbeys or his hunting boxes. Like all the Norman kings he was addicted to the chase, and built a walled park at Woodstock in Oxfordshire to hunt exotic breeds. But the king would also expect to be put up by his tenants-in-chief, sometimes for weeks at a time. To feed and house the court, which might consist of hundreds of soldiers and courtiers, could be ruinous. Especially in William Rufus’ time the arrival of the court would be dreaded because its members were so badly behaved. We are told by the chroniclers that local landowners would hide themselves in the woods until the court had passed by after getting no answer to their request for beds for the night.

On the other hand it was a great honour to have the king to stay because it meant that a young man of the house might become a page in the royal household and from there rise to great heights as a minister. For, despite the increasing specialization and professionalism, the king’s household continued to be the centre of government. The king’s chancellor was head of all the clerks studying to be priests, who as we have seen performed the role of the civil service, doing much of the scribal work needed by the king’s business. The chamberlain was the other prize position at Henry’s court. Although his name indicates that he presided over the king’s bedchamber the chamberlain also supervised the king’s Treasury. This arose from the fact that in ancient times the Treasury had been kept in a chest in the king’s bedroom. Other king’s servants were the steward, who looked after the king’s hall, and the constable, who looked after the outdoor servants–including, as his name suggests, the horses in the king’s stable.

Out of these domestic positions would eventually grow the great offices of state we know today, though over the centuries their roles have subtly altered. The chancellor of the Exchequer now presides over the Treasury. At the royal Opening of Parliament the bearers of these offices, some of which like the lord chamberlain have become hereditary or have devolved on to one particular family, can be seen today walking in the procession behind the monarch. Great lords would actually pay the king to take their sons into his household because of the career opportunities it offered. A page in Henry I’s household who showed willingness and ability in putting out the king’s clothes or even his food might find his route to high office smoothed by being chosen to help the king’s chaplain. He would then usually become a chaplain himself, opening his way to being part of the king’s secretariat.

Henry’s court was conducted with regularity and precision, even down to noting what food was owed the courtiers. However high or low, every person at court, whether chancellor or royal laundress, was allocated a certain amount of money, food, wine and candles to live on. For example, the chancellor received the following stipend: five shillings a day, a simnel cake (a rich fruit cake decorated with marzipan), two salted simnels, a form of flour for bread, a measure of clear and ordinary wine (because water, except from springs, was too dirty to drink). Because he spent his life poring over letters the chancellor was allowed the large number of forty candle ends and a thick wax candle to light his room. In contrast the king’s watchmen who guarded Henry’s palaces received double the chancellor’s rations for their more physical work but few candles because they would not be concerned with reading or auditing accounts. They were allowed a supplement of two loaves in the morning, an extra dish in the evening and a gallon of beer to while away the long hours as they watched for the king’s enemies.

Henry’s close alliance with the Church, which was enhanced by having Bishop Roger as his first minister, meant that the continued struggle for supremacy between Church and secular ruler was resolved amicably for a while, though on less advantageous terms than William I had achieved. During Archbishop Anselm’s exile in Rome the contemporary papal spirit of independence had converted him to the idea of the supremacy of the clergy over the prince. Though the archbishop had led the domestic support for Henry against Duke Robert, in 1103 he publicly backed the new pope Pascal II when he renewed the investiture crisis and added that anyone in holy orders was forbidden to do homage to a lay ruler. Although Anselm had already done homage to Henry he refused to perform the act again, withdrawing to Rome for a second time. Once again England was left without a head of the Church, this time for four years. Naturally Henry could not agree to a directive that seemed to strike at his royal power. It would have prevented a large number of the English population swearing an oath of allegiance to him, for holy orders of course covered ordinary clerks as well as bishops and priests.

A satisfactory compromise was reached between Anselm and Henry. Royal authority over the Church in England was preserved at the cost of the king losing the right to perform investitures. All ordinary clerks were once more allowed to perform homage to the king, while bishops would do homage to the king for what were known as their temporal possessions, that is their Church lands, and swore as the king’s vassal to produce the soldiers which this entailed. This compromise pleased all parties, and indeed the European investiture contest would end along similar lines. But there was always the possibility that under less suave representatives of Church and state the question of whose authority was the greater might boil up again. Thirty years later, under Henry I’s grandson Henry II, it did just that.

Though he was not loved by the English, Henry reconciled them to Norman kings. But on his death the peace he had enforced throughout the island was shaken by civil war. A simple stroke of fate had upset all his careful plans. The tragic, premature death of his only son William saw the throne devolve to his daughter, the Empress Matilda, who had married the Emperor Henry V. Yet the Norman barons and the Anglo-Saxons themselves had never been ruled by a woman–Boudicca had been a Celt and had been queen only of a south-eastern tribe–and all sides were hostile to such an idea.

William’s death was entirely avoidable. After the formal annexation of Normandy to the English crown in 1106 the royal household shuttled between the two countries. Unfortunately on the way back to London after a four-year sojourn in Normandy in the autumn of 1120 the heir to the throne, William, was drowned in the Channel just off Barfleur with many members of Henry’s court. When the terrible news was brought to the king he gave a cry of agony and fell senseless to the floor. It is said that after this tragedy he never smiled again. He took another wife soon after, Adeliza of Louvain, in hopes of producing more male heirs, but none came. By 1126 he was therefore obliged to make his daughter, the widowed Empress Matilda, his heir. In a formal ceremony his tenants-in-chief did homage to the empress, as they had done to her brother William, and swore to be her liege men. In 1135 Henry I died in Normandy from too many lamphreys, an indigestible form of eel which his doctor had warned him against. But the English crown did not pass to Matilda. Instead Henry’s nephew, his sister Adela’s son Stephen of Blois, was proclaimed king. Although Stephen had personally sworn the oath of loyalty to his cousin Matilda, he rushed from his home in Blois to England to claim the throne before the empress could arrive there from Anjou.

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Stephen of Blois (1135–1154) 

The new king had been sure that the half-Norman barons would be too proud to allow themselves to be ruled by a woman, whatever they may have said to her father. Moreover the Empress Matilda’s unpopularity had been compounded after the barons had paid her homage by her second marriage to the Count of Anjou. Although Henry I’s aim in arranging this marriage had been to make peace between Normandy and her neighbour Anjou, Anjou’s fierce and scheming counts were the hereditary enemies of the Norman barons. Stephen reckoned correctly that the combination of Matilda’s sex and her marriage to an Angevin would be more than the great Anglo-Norman magnates could stomach.

As he had hoped, all the most important tenants-in-chief as well as the increasingly powerful London merchants backed his claim, as did the supremely important figure of Bishop Roger of Salisbury. By winning over Henry’s justiciar and the organizing genius of his reign, Stephen had secured the loyalty of Henry’s network of government officials, the clerks and all the new judges. Stephen’s brother, Bishop Henry of Winchester, who had enjoyed his uncle Henry’s patronage, helped garner the support of the Church, which made his brother’s usurpation seem more legitimate. When Stephen and his soldiers arrived at Winchester after he had been acclaimed king in London, Bishop Henry played a crucial role in ensuring that the new king secured the Treasury.

Stephen had obtained mastery over a country that had recovered from the misery of war and was now enjoying unprecedented growth thanks to the trade links with the wealthy Norman Empire. During Henry I’s lifetime the king’s peace had been enforced on the country and the barons brought to heel. Peace encouraged prosperity and cultural advances: towns, the religious life and the arts had a chance to flourish. Merchant guilds and craft guilds, for cobblers and weavers, were established for the first time to set standards in trade. Guild members would have sold their goods at what became the greatest cloth fair in medieval England, Bartholomew Fair, started up in 1133. Ten years before that the London hospital we know as St Bart’s, or St Bartholomew’s, was founded. The Empress Matilda would probably have worn the new materials brought back by English Crusaders or by the merchants accompanying them from the east, such as cotton muslin. Wealthy ladies like herself would have enjoyed the increasingly elaborate patterning embroidered on cloth that merchants imported from Palestine. In Yorkshire the newly founded Cistercian order commissioned the delicate pointed arches of Rievaulx Abbey which not only reveal the influence of eastern architecture but also show that Romanesque church fortresses were no longer quite so necessary. The English were exposed through Norman links to Paris, where the monk Abelard was altering the study of philosophy with his promotion of logic, and what is often known as the twelfth-century renaissance of learning was beginning. Scholars came to England to give lectures, and continental manuscript traditions bore fruit in English monasteries like those at St Albans, Canterbury and Winchester, which began to achieve new heights in the art of illuminated books.

But under Stephen this prosperity began to falter. King David of Scotland repeatedly invaded Northumberland on behalf of his niece Matilda, bringing the years of peaceful coexistence between England and Scotland to an end. The Scottish king was finally driven out of England after his defeat at the Battle of the Standard on Cowton Moor in 1138, at the hands of the elderly Archbishop Thurstan of York, who on his own initiative had raised the northern fyrd. As an independent-minded Yorkshireman Archbishop Thurston had little time for Norman innovations. Not only did his army fight on foot in the old fashion which had been discredited by the Battle of Hastings, he went into battle displaying the banners of Stephen and three of Yorkshire’s most famous saints on a farmer’s cart to inspire his fellow countrymen. His faith in old-fashioned methods was rewarded, and his troops defeated the Scots cavalry by breaking their charge.

Although Matilda’s uncle had been held at bay, later that year civil war broke out between the empress and Stephen after the king made the mistake of sacking Roger of Salisbury. The quarrel between Stephen and Bishop Roger seems to have been born out of the sensitive king’s personal insecurities. He saw Roger of Salisbury’s family monopoly of ministerial positions–Roger’s two nephews held the bishoprics of Ely and Lincoln, while his son was the royal chancellor–as a threat to his own power. When they refused to give up some of their castles, Stephen, by confiscating their great possessions, irrevocably broke with the family whose powerful network of patronage effectively ran the government. Less than a month after Roger had been driven from office in 1138, the Empress Matilda’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester landed in England to stir up rebellion against Stephen. Gloucester was a cultivated man who was the patron of Geoffrey of Monmouth, an historian and popularizer of the Arthurian myths.

A year later, in September 1139, Matilda herself arrived in the west near Bristol. For the next ten years the English people suffered as the two parties battled it out, winning a little territory here, a little territory there, but neither side prevailing. Despite Stephen’s attempt to win popularity by abandoning the new forests created by Henry I, he had never seized the public imagination.

The only people who profited from the anarchy that ensued were the barons. As the royal government’s control of England diminished, their power expanded until their position was very different from what it had been under the first three Norman kings. None of them was interested in Stephen or Matilda winning and none of them threw his weight behind either candidate. This prolonged the war (it was to last ten years), and Stephen had to resort to importing Flemish mercenaries, which did nothing for his popularity. Over the next fifteen years hundreds of castles and fortified buildings were erected illegally. In those days, because castles were potential instruments of war, a licence for them had to be obtained from the king. They replaced the Norman manor houses as the predominant form of domestic architecture, indicating that English life at that time was lived in a state of siege. Their dungeons often concealed scenes of unspeakable suffering. Peasants were carried off there and tortured when they would not pay the extortionate new dues that the barons began to demand now that the sheriff was not there to prevent them. So many agricultural workers were imprisoned that crops began to fail all over the country: no one knew whom the barons would seize next or whose house would be set on fire to make the owner relinquish his hoard of silver. The chronicles of the time are full of lamentation. ‘They took all who had any property and put them in prison,’ reportedThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘and some that were once rich men went about begging their bread. They robbed churches and churchmen, and though the bishops and clergy were ever cursing them, they cared nothing for their curses. The land was all undone with their deeds and men said that Christ and His Saints slept.’

In return for their support some enterprising barons demanded a vast part of the crown lands from Stephen, which his predecessors had been at such pains to acquire. Geoffrey of Mandeville showed particular greed and joined first Stephen and then Matilda, gaining more territory each time he changed sides. Stalemate marked the struggle: Matilda’s supporters held on to the west near Bristol and Gloucester because they were the territory of her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, while Stephen’s partisans controlled London and the south-east. At last, in 1141, the stalemate was broken when Robert of Gloucester and his son-in-law the Earl of Chester captured Stephen, who was laying siege to Lincoln. When Bishop Henry of Winchester, Stephen’s own brother, declared that this was a sign from God that Stephen’s claim to the throne was illegitimate some of the most important magnates elected Matilda queen. All would have been settled had it not been for her haughty personality and the independence of Londoners.

Londoners, who were already pro-Stephen and were less than impressed by the empress’s lack of warmth, unexpectedly refused to agree to the barons’ wishes. They rose up and drove Matilda out of their city in the most humiliating way, in the middle of the night. What had appeared clear cut was once again all confusion. Bishop Henry received further supernatural guidance to suggest that the Almighty was perhaps coming round to Stephen’s claim. He changed sides and led a new rebellion to try to free the imprisoned king. Matilda remained uncrowned, and Robert of Gloucester, her brilliant commander-in-chief, was captured during a battle at Winchester, leaving her to command her own forces.

The empress not only lacked the common touch; without her brother she had no sense of tactics. She was soon on the run. Narrowly evading Stephen’s forces at Devizes in Wiltshire–disguised, it is said, as a corpse in grave clothes–she ended up besieged in Oxford Castle. In December 1142, when it became clear that her men were going to have to surrender because food had run out, she managed to escape again. In the early hours of the morning, dressed in long white robes so that she would not show up against the snow that lay thickly on the ground, she climbed out of a window and slid down a rope suspended from one of the castle towers. By a secret postern gate she and three knights left the castle compound and slipped through the enemy lines without any of the soldiers realizing that the shadowy form melting into street corners was their prey. On account of the freezing weather there was a very thick crust of ice on the River Thames and the empress was able to walk all the way along it to the safety of Wallingford.

The two sides now agreed to exchange their two most important prisoners of war, Robert of Gloucester and Stephen, and the war continued up and down the country. But Matilda’s cause was now a rather halfhearted one, particularly since Londoners had prevented her from being crowned. With the death of Robert of Gloucester in 1148 much of her support faded away, and she swept back to Normandy, never to return. Stephen remained nominally King of England, though he controlled very little of the country that the Norman kings had subjugated. The Welsh were invading the lands of the marcher lords, and the north of England was the fiefdom of King David of Scotland. So the anarchy continued even though the war was over.

In 1153, however, the arrival of the empress’s son Henry of Anjou to demand his mother’s throne signalled a new era for England. He captured Malmesbury, and his cause was given an additional fillip by the support of the Earl of Leicester, which meant that Henry held the whole of the midlands. Although Stephen had not been defeated unequivocally, he was by now tired of so much warfare. On the recommendation of his advisers he agreed by the Treaty of Wallingford in that year that he would rule until he died, but that Henry was to succeed him. Stephen’s son Eustace was paid off with considerable lands.

Henry II (1154–1189) 

Although he was only twenty-one years old at the beginning of his reign in 1154, Henry II would be one of England’s greatest kings. He was a worthy representative of the twelfth-century renaissance, a period of startling innovation and growing self-confidence, when there was a sudden explosion of written sources, of histories, biographies and political treatises. Much of the framework of English national law that Henry II set up has lasted down to the present day.

In 1154 the country was still reeling from the disorder of Stephen’s reign. But Henry’s vigorous supervision saw to it that by the end of the decade England was once again being run along the well-oiled lines of his grandfather Henry I. Supporters of both his mother and Stephen, such as Roger of Salisbury’s nephew Nigel, Bishop of Ely, were willing to sink their differences in order for the bitterness of civil war to end. The Curia Regis began to function again; itinerant justices dared to venture out of their homes. Above all, Henry’s aim was to limit the power of the barons so that the sort of destructive anarchy which the country had experienced would never be visited on England again.

In fact Henry II was not a man any baron would wish to trifle with. Not only was he in the fierce, energetic mould of the Norman kings and possessed of a powerful personality, thanks to his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine he also ruled the whole of western France from the Loire to the Pyrenees on the borders of Spain, as well as Normandy and Anjou, inherited from his mother and his father respectively. (Eleanor had brought him Aquitaine, Poitou and Auvergne.) The new king of England was thus the greatest monarch in western Europe. No baron was going to argue when he ordered that the 1,115 illegal or ‘adulterine’ castles be pulled down, given that Henry could call on an unlimited number of soldiers from his vast continental possessions to do the job for him. Although England was not the largest part of his possessions it was the most important because it gave him a crown. This meant he outranked all his tenants-in-chief on the French continent. It also made him the feudal equal of the King of France. Though technically Louis VII was Henry’s overlord for Normandy and Anjou, the French king ruled an area that was not even one-eighth the size of what the English king held in France.

Henry’s most pressing task was to restore order to England and reduce the power of the barons to what it had been in the past. He brought the royal power back to the level his grandfather had known by leading military expeditions against the Celtic borderlands of the country, Wales and Scotland. Although Gwynedd remained independent, most of the Welsh princes once again did homage to the English king as overlord, and the English marcher lords resumed their old territories. The ancient separation between Welsh and English Christianity was done away with when the Welsh bishops agreed that the Archbishop of Canterbury should head their Church too. Henry’s first cousin Malcolm IV of Scotland, meanwhile, had to return Northumbria to England and was made to do homage to him as his overlord. Henry strongly impressed the official class of England by his firm measures. All foreign soldiers, like the Flemish mercenaries Stephen had used who were still at large in rapacious bands, were packed off to their countries of origin, and all the crown lands Stephen had granted away were restored to royal control. The king insisted on spending time travelling from county court to county court ‘judging the judges’, as one chronicler put it; this would result in a complete shake-up of the legal system.

The first twenty years of Henry II’s reign saw the considerable expansion of the Angevin Empire–that is, the empire of Anjou–with the acquisition of Brittany and of the overlordship of Toulouse; he also obtained the submission of the Irish kings. Despite his Norman ancestry Henry’s character owed just as much to his father Geoffrey, who had made the counts of Anjou a rising power in what is now France. By 1144 Geoffrey of Anjou had brought enough of the Duchy of Normandy under his sway to have become its duke by conquest. But because his son Henry had a legal claim to it through his mother, all government business tended to be done in the name of his son. Thanks to his father’s interest in education Henry II was one of the best-educated princes of the day, exposed to the finest European learning. Fond of verse and reading, he was also interested in philosophy and, though not a lawyer himself, he absorbed the advances in the law being made at the new universities on the continent and applied them to England. His father being the Count of Anjou, Henry II was the first Angevin king of England, but after his son John lost Anjou Henry’s descendants became known as the Plantagenets.

Henry II combined in his person the best and worst sides of his genetic heritage. He had the cunning Angevin mind with its flair for diplomacy, as well as the Angevins’ violent temper, and this was allied to the forcefulness of the dukes of Normandy. In addition to the education his father had provided he had also responded well to the training in statecraft he received from his uncles King David of Scotland and Robert of Gloucester. In sum Henry II was one of the most formidable men ever to sit on the English throne, a marvellous warrior and a great statesman. Physically he took after the Angevins, being slightly thick set with famously muscled calves because he was in the saddle so much, and he had a square, lion-like, ruddy-complexioned face. When he was irritated, which was much of the time, the chroniclers noted, his eyes seemed to flash lightning.

Henry’s vast inheritance from his father, the Angevin Empire, brought its own problems. Much of his energies and those of his sons would be inextricably bound up with a battle with the King of France for mastery of French territory. To begin with the King of France controlled only a very small area round Paris, but the struggle would end with the loss of the northern empire to France at the beginning of the thirteenth century when the Angevins found a worthy opponent in the French king Philip Augustus.

But the empire also brought great advantages to England, as it led to the establishment of close relations between England’s southern ports, London, Bristol and Southampton, and the equally busy Angevin entrepôts of Bordeaux, Rouen and La Rochelle. English merchants were able to import at advantageous rates the French wine and salt which were the preservatives and therefore the great commodities of the middle ages. Water was too dangerous to drink until the purification techniques developed in the nineteenth century, so wine or beer was the drink of choice, small beer being drunk by all classes throughout the day from breakfast onwards. Although vines were grown in southern England during the middle ages, England’s ownership until the mid-fifteenth century of Aquitaine and her great region of Bordeaux gave rise to a tradition of the English drinking Bordeaux that was perpetuated until the Napoleonic Wars (when Britain’s ally Portugal temporarily replaced France as the main source of British alcoholic beverages).

Ruling such a great empire needed a man of tremendous energy prepared to travel long distances, for what gave the disparate parts of the Angevin Empire their strength and unity was the figure of the king. Fortunately, Henry was suited to the task; he was consumed by curiosity and was famous for his lack of pomp and his indifference to his surroundings. The whole court might find themselves wandering lost in an unknown forest while the king galloped ahead. ‘Frequently in the dark,’ remembered Peter of Blois, ‘we would consider our prayers answered if we found by chance some mean filthy hut. Often there were fierce quarrels over these hovels, and courtiers fought with drawn swords for a lodging that it would have disgraced pigs to fight for.’

Henry’s addiction to hunting, shared with so many Normans, meant that much of the king’s business was done in the country, although with the establishment of permanent law courts at Westminster London was becoming the seat of government. The king was perpetually busy, and his astonished courtiers observed that he never sat down except to eat, and even then he bolted his food. He found it so hard not to be doing things that he used to draw pictures all through the Mass which as a devout Christian he heard every day. Priests deputed to say the royal Mass were chosen for the speed with which they could get through the service, for everyone dreaded Henry’s rage.

One of the king’s first appointments in England was his elevation to the chancellorship of a talented and charismatic secretary in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury named Thomas à Becket, the son of a Norman merchant in London. Becket’s natural brilliance and sharp debating skills, which had marked him out when he was only a page, had been honed not only by legal studies in Theobald’s household but by being sent to study Roman and canon law at the University of Bologna in Italy. Since then he had been entrusted by the archbishop with many important missions abroad, having shown himself to be a clever and energetic diplomat.

But Becket became more than just Henry’s chancellor. As a foreigner the young king needed information about England, and this was supplied by the articulate Thomas. They became boon companions, spending most of their time together. Contemporaries noted how extraordinarily close they were. For a decade the two men–Thomas was some ten years older–ruled almost like brothers, with Thomas taking a starring role in defending the ancient rights and lands of the crown and as chancellor supervising every royal instruction or writ. Henry relied on Thomas for everything, to an almost excessive extent, as they ate every meal together and romped and wrestled more like boys than king and minister. On one occasion Henry rode his horse into Thomas’s hall and jumped over the table to sit and dine with him. One writer said, ‘Never in Christian times were two men more of a mind. In Church they sat together, together they rode out.’ Unlike the king, who was always rather plainly dressed, perhaps because he was rarely to be seen off a horse, the ambitious Thomas à Becket was known for his love of display and heavily embroidered cloaks. Although Henry liked to puncture pretension in anyone else, it amused him in Thomas.

The chancellor was as full of ingenious ideas as the king. He probably encouraged Henry to rely on the increasingly widespread custom of scutage, or shield money (fromscutum, the Latin for shield), the payment of two marks in lieu of knight’s service by those of his tenants-in-chief and their vassals who could not spare the time to fight. Henry was forever having to wage wars to maintain his territories in France, where they were threatened by the meddling activities of the French king Louis VII, who was uncontrollably jealous of his too powerful vassal. It was much easier to depend on the skills of professional soldiers paid for with the shield money. Moreover, to a ruler anxious to reassert royal authority, scutage had the additional advantage of diminishing the military power of the barons. Becket himself enjoyed fighting just as much as the king, and in 1159 he was on his charger at Henry’s side as his master attempted to subjugate the county of Toulouse. Becket’s subtle mind may also have dreamed up a marriage treaty between the daughter of the King of France and Henry’s eldest son as a means of obtaining for England the coveted Vexin region, midway between Rouen and Paris. Certainly it was he who conducted the negotiations. Since the bride and groom were six months and four years old at the time, Louis VII assumed that the event would not take place for at least ten years, although the baby princess went to live at the court of Henry II. But to Louis’ rage a couple of years later in 1160 the children were married to one another, now aged six and two, and the Vexin thus once more became part of Henry’s empire.

Thomas grew enormously wealthy as Henry granted him the revenues of many religious foundations. When he was sent as ambassador to negotiate the transfer of the Vexin, his equipage was so magnificent that all the French ran out to see it. One thousand knights accompanied him, and 250 pages sang verses to his glory and waved banners. Priests rode two by two alongside the relics from his own chapel which accompanied him; behind them monkeys rode on the saddles of the horses bearing gold for the French king.

In 1162 Archbishop Theobald died. The infatuated king decided that the magnificent Thomas, whose views were so close to his own, should controversially (since he was not an ordained priest) be appointed head of the English Church, namely Archbishop of Canterbury. At the same time he would remain head of the king’s Chancery. Like all rulers of the time Henry had been dissatisfied by what seemed the increasingly aggressive demands of the Church. Thomas à Becket might have been the Church establishment’s candidate for the chancellorship, but during his eight years in office he had completely identified with the king when it came to collecting taxes imposed on the Church for royal wars. The appointment seemed to be a master stroke which would bring the Church more tightly under royal control.

The years of anarchy and the weakness of the crown had enhanced not only the power of the barons but also the position of the Church. When the king’s writs to the shire court had more or less dried up, Church courts had taken their place. By the time of Henry II Church lawyers had been drawing into their courts all aspects of ordinary life, and had begun to argue that cases involving debt belonged to them. Church lawyers appealed to Rome in ever increasing numbers about property, as opposed to the spiritual issues their courts were intended for. In addition these lawyers were using their expertise to boost the revenues of the Church so that its income was now greater than the king’s.

The success of the Church in expanding its power had been aided by the activities of a group of Englishmen at Rome, including John of Salisbury, the political philosopher and Becket’s future biographer, and Nicholas Breakspear, who became Pope Adrian IV in 1154. The twelfth century was internationally the great century for the development of law and these men were among those leading the advance of canon law. Like Thomas à Becket, John of Salisbury had become a member of Archbishop Theobald’s household, and under his influence a more thorough legal training began to be offered to clerks throughout the country.

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But for Henry II the most controversial issue relating to the Church was its expansion into the criminal law. Its argument that it reserved to itself the right to try anyone in holy orders was allowing murderers and thieves off scot free. Royal judges who called for clerks in holy orders to appear before them were being insulted, and the miscreants were refusing to accept their authority. At this period the term holy orders meant not just priests but any person trained by the Church. Any man who could write Latin could say he was a clerk, and thus come under the category of clergy. So could anyone who simply had the top his head shaved in a tonsure. Because Church courts could not hand down a death sentence, a great number of ‘criminous clerks’, as Henry would call them, were escaping proper punishment. They usually avoided prison too, as the Church did not like to pay for it, arguing that its penalty of degrading a man from holy orders was punishment enough. As part of Henry’s drive to restore harmony and regularity to his new kingdom these anomalies had to be addressed. By appointing Thomas à Becket archbishop he believed he would draw the too independent and powerful Church into subjection.

However, Thomas was extremely reluctant to accept the post, partly because he foresaw a clash of interests. Despite his great worldliness he knew himself well enough to see that he always pursued his tasks wholeheartedly. He is said to have told the king, ‘If I become Archbishop of Canterbury, it will be God I serve before you.’ Thomas was in any case unpopular within the Church hierarchy itself for his hard line on making ecclesiastical lands pay scutage; many churchmen in addition were appalled that a mere deacon, who therefore could not say Mass, should become head of the Church. Those who knew Becket greeted his appointment with scepticism, unable to believe that this proud and arrogant chancellor could become a saintly archbishop and forswear a life of revelry and extravagance. But, much to the world’s surprise, that is just what he did.

As soon as he became archbishop, having been ordained priest, his behaviour underwent a transformation. He spent his nights in prayer and mortification of the flesh. Beneath his gorgeous vestments he wore a prickly shirt made of goat’s hair which swarmed with vermin so that he would always be suffering as Christ had done. For contemporaries and for many later observers, this metamorphosis was evidence that God and his august position had worked a great change in him. Modern historians, however, have been less inclined to take a view so strongly coloured by religious faith. It has been pointed out that once he became archbishop Thomas behaved in an extraordinarily antagonistic fashion to his patron. Despite his notably spiritual life he used his position to interfere in the king’s business as obstructively as he had been helpful before. It was as if he was testing his power against the man who had appointed him, though only months before they had been the closest friends.

Although the potential for a quarrel had been building up for some time, it burst out in 1163 when the king informed his bishops in council at Westminster of his intention to end the legal loophole known as ‘benefit of clergy’. He intended to make it the law that ‘criminous clerks’ convicted in the Church courts would be degraded from holy orders and punished by his judges, for it was now obvious that an informal understanding that convicted clerks be retried in the royal courts was not working. When Becket himself refused to give permission for the retrial of a canon, Henry struck. Claiming his right according to the ancient customs of England, in January 1164 he drew up the Constitutions of Clarendon as a restatement of the position of the English Church’s organization.

However, the Constitutions of Clarendon went a great deal further than the immediate issue at hand, and a great deal further than ancient custom. They dealt not only with criminous clerks but with Henry’s attempt to restrict the Church’s power and define relations between Church and state: priests were forbidden to leave the country without royal permission; nor could excommunication be used against the king’s barons without his permission; all disputes over land were to be decided in the king’s courts even if they concerned the Church; disputed debts were also to be confined to the king’s courts; appeals to Rome were to be made only if Henry allowed them.

Although most of the bishops, led by Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, were at first angered by the Constitutions, they came round to them–persuaded by the king’s threats of violence against them. The exile from Rome of Pope Alexander III prevented him from doing anything that might annoy the King of England. Henry II was one of Alexander’s chief supporters against his rival Pope Paschal, the candidate of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Barbarossa, named for his red beard, had driven Alexander out of Italy, and Alexander would do anything to prevent the King of England going over to the emperor’s side in the long struggle for power that was the investiture crisis.

Becket refused to sign the Constitutions, on the ground that they infringed the liberties of the Church. This was hugely embarrassing because if the Constitutions were to become law they required the seal of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The king’s anger knew no bounds, though he was also hurt by Thomas’s strange behaviour and wound up by his jealous rivals in the Church. He confiscated the archbishop’s property and removed his eldest son Henry from his guardianship. He then set about ruining him. When the king’s Great Council met at Northampton in October 1164, Henry demanded that all the money which had passed through Becket’s hands when he was his chancellor should be accounted for. Thomas replied that he had spent it all in the king’s service. He enraged the king still further by carrying a large crucifix to indicate that the only protection he claimed was God’s. Like everything about the archbishop, to his enemies this seemed absurdly dramatic behaviour. But to his supporters like John of Salisbury it was courageous and showed the astonishing miracle that God was performing in Becket’s heart.

The king’s bullying only increased Thomas’s stubbornness. Despite pleas from the bishops that he sign the Constitutions, Thomas insisted on arguing with Henry face to face, and there was an angry exchange of words. Henry exclaimed that he was appalled by Thomas’s ingratitude. He had raised him to the pinnacle of honour in the land, yet Thomas did nothing but oppose him. Had he forgotten all the proofs of his affection? Thomas responded that he was not unmindful of the things which God, bestower of all things, had seen fit to bestow on him through the king. He did not wish to act against his wishes, so long as it was agreeable to the will of God. Henry was indeed his liege lord, but God was lord of both of them and to ignore God’s will in order to obey the king would benefit neither him nor the king. For as St Peter said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’ When the king retorted that he wanted no sermons from the son of one of his villeins, Thomas said, ‘It is true that I am not of royal lineage, but neither was St Peter.’

As the archbishop still refused to sign, Henry’s justiciar pronounced him a traitor. At last appreciating that with the King of England as his enemy his life was in danger, Thomas escaped from Northampton in the middle of the night and fled abroad to appeal to Pope Alexander III. He remained out of the country for six years.

For Henry the situation became intolerable. It embarrassed him at home and internationally for England to be without a head of the Church for so long. By 1170, however, the archbishop had returned, following intervention by the pope. It was believed by both sides that a reconciliation had been effected. At a meeting in France the king promised to allow the archbishop back into the country.

Thomas returned in December, taking up residence once more in the Archbishop’s Palace at Canterbury. His occupancy lasted less than a month. Although at their meeting Henry II had never mentioned signing the Constitutions of Clarendon the king had assumed that this would take place and begin the process of reform. But the archbishop was as obstinate as ever. He refused to lift the sentence of excommunication he had imposed on the Archbishop of York who on Whitsunday in Thomas’s absence had crowned Henry II’s eldest son, the young Henry. This was a medieval custom intended to ensure the loyalty of the barons in the future, but performing the ceremony was the special right of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact that December Becket re-excommunicated all those who had been involved, seven of the most important men in England including the justiciar and Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, with nine other bishops.

For a brief period there was a lull. December passed awkwardly, with king and archbishop not on speaking terms. The king’s temper was not improved by the pope suddenly taking Thomas’s side. A papal bull or message arrived if not excommunicating at least suspending all the English bishops who had taken part in the young king’s coronation, leaving the English Church in a state of chaos.

On Christmas Day news reached Henry II, who was spending the festive season in icy Normandy, that Thomas had struck again. He had now excommunicated Ralph de Broc, who had been steward of the diocese of Canterbury’s lands during his absence. Maddened by this constant thorn in his flesh, raising his hands to heaven the always impulsive Henry said furiously, ‘Can none of the cowards eating my bread free me of this turbulent priest?’

No sooner were the rash words out of the king’s mouth than four knights who had always disliked Becket, Hugh de Morville, Reginald Fitz Urse, Richard le Breton and William de Tracy, left the hall and made for England. Having touched down at the home of Ralph de Broc, they went on to the Archbishop’s Palace at Canterbury.

On 29 December, on a dark winter’s afternoon with the pale sun scarcely penetrating the freezing skies, the archbishop was reading quietly in the library when there was a great commotion at the gate. Pursued vainly by palace servants–priests and serving boys–the knights burst into the archbishop’s room and demanded he withdraw the excommunications. The archbishop ignored them. Saying that he was only obeying the pope, he then set off for the nearby cathedral, followed by his cross-bearer Edward Grim, who lived to tell the tale.

The knights paused to put on their armour–though why they needed this was unclear since their only opponents would have been the unarmed monks singing Vespers. Ahead of them now in the gloom of the cathedral they could see Thomas’s white garments glimmering as he prepared to listen to Mass before the high altar. ‘Where is the archbishop? Where is the traitor?’ they shouted. ‘Here am I,’ said Becket, turning to meet his murderers, ‘not traitor but archbishop and priest of God.’ Then he meekly bowed his head as if for the first blow. One of the knights remembered his Christian upbringing sufficiently to want to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury outside consecrated ground, ground where for over 500 years the English nation had worshipped. He tried to drag the archbishop out. But Thomas refused to go. He clung so hard to a pillar in the north transept just below the north aisle left of the choir that the knights decided that they would have to kill him where he stood. The first blow missed him and hit the cross-bearer, but then all the knights piled in. The Archbishop of Canterbury was butchered before the High Altar.

This deed of blood perpetrated by four Christian knights apparently on the orders of the Christian King of England became the scandal of western Europe. Although Henry II probably had no idea that his exasperated outburst would be seen as an order to murder (we know from contemporary records that the king was planning to have him tried for treason), the world preferred to believe otherwise. The murder of the head of the English Church at the behest of the King of England had enormous reverberations. The cult of St Thomas the Christian martyr–for the pope promptly canonized him–spread as far as Iceland.

Thomas dead was far more powerful than Thomas alive. All his former misdeeds were forgotten, and he was venerated as the Church’s champion against injustice. The shrine erected to the former archbishop became one of the most popular in Europe–thus inThe Canterbury Talesthe Pilgrims are seeking the ‘blissful holy martyr’. It was also the most richly adorned, having a great reputation for miraculous cures effected by his lacerated body. If the archbishop had been wrong to resist the punishment of the clerks, there was some justification for him opposing such a naked assertion of royal power against the Church. But though Thomas à Becket passed into English folklore as a hero, the view taken of him today is less enthusiastic. His martyrdom put back the reform of an abuse for 300 years.

For all the animosity of the previous few years Henry II was a genuinely devout man and he was appalled by the murder. He burst into loud cries when he heard the news, put on sackcloth, rubbed his face with ashes and, as was noticed by the Bishop of Lisieux, behaved more like a friend than the sovereign of the dead man–which of course he had once been. Shutting himself up in his room for three days, he would not eat and fell into stupors so that for a while the country feared it might lost its king as well as its archbishop. Even though Thomas’s own erratic behaviour had to some extent brought his fate upon him, his hideous murder cast a stain over the rest of Henry’s reign from which he never quite recovered. The golden reputation and some of the zest for life faded. Despite his great legislative achievements from 1173 onwards his life was marred by rebellions throughout his far-flung possessions, stirred up by his sons whose enmity was used by the King of France to expand his territory at England’s expense.

Henry II was the first English king to extend Norman power to the next-door island of Ireland. Although Irish monks had preserved much of the classical corpus in their monasteries and Irish Christianity had been substantially responsible for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the great days of early Irish civilization were over. Many monasteries had been destroyed in the ninth-century Viking raids that created the settlements of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The arts and letters were no longer flourishing in a country ruled by a large number of kings who were in effect tribal chieftains. Bloody vengeance and constant war were now the custom of the country.

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It was Dermot, King of Leinster who provided the open door to allow the Normans into Ireland. In 1166 he was expelled from Ireland by an alliance of his rivals, their pretext being that he had carried off Devorgil, the beautiful wife of the chieftain of Breffny in neighbouring Connaught. Dermot fled to Henry II’s court, which was then at Bristol, to ask for troops to win his kingdom back. Although the king turned down his request for aid, he gave Dermot a letter authorizing him to recruit any of his English subjects. In return King Dermot pledged his homage to Henry as his overlord. It soon became clear to Dermot that the place to recruit Norman adventurers or mercenaries was among the marcher lords of South Wales, who were on active service pushing back the frontiers of the fierce Welsh kings’ kingdoms. In the Norman system of strict primogeniture landless younger sons who would do anything for money and land were just the breed needed to reconquer Dermot’s kingdom.

Richard de Clare, the palatine Earl of Pembroke, volunteered to be leader of the Norman expedition to Ireland. His reputation as a warrior was so great that most people knew him by the nickname of Strongbow. In return for his help King Dermot promised the hand in marriage of his lovely daughter Eva and the throne of Leinster when he died. A painting can be seen at the House of Commons today which shows the wedding ceremony of Eva and Strongbow, marking the moment when Ireland began to be ruled from England, as it was for the next 800 years. It was up to Strongbow to recruit his own men, and he gathered together a very efficient band of Norman knights as the advance guard of the expedition. The most important of them were the family known as Fitzgerald and their half-brothers the Fitzstephens. They were all the sons of a Welsh princess named Nesta (daughter of Rhys ap Tudor) by Gerald of Windsor, a Norman knight with royal connections. Accompanying these warriors to Ireland was their youngest brother, a scholar known to history as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales–Cambrensis means Welsh in Latin). He described the expedition to Ireland in tremendous detail.

Despite the Normans’ small numbers–and even though Strongbow himself had remained in England–their superb discipline and battle tactics stood them in good stead against the Irish tribes and Danish kingdoms. Celtic individualism and traditions of tribal warfare made it just as difficult for twelfth-century Celts to band together and forget their historic enmities as it had been for first-centuryADCelts in Britannia against the Romans. Though the Irish matched the Normans for bravery, they were quarrelsome and disorganized and found it so difficult to accept leadership, to forget their endless grudges and stop warring against one another to combine against a far more dangerous foe, that the important towns of Wexford and Dublin quickly fell to the Norman adventurers. In 1170, after two years of fighting led by William, Raymond and Maurice Fitzgerald, Strongbow at last crossed the Irish Sea, took the town of Waterford and married Eva. When Dermot died the following year, Strongbow became King of Leinster. For all their exploits the Norman lords’ hold on Ireland was fairly tenuous. The Norse relations of the citizens of the Norse town of Dublin soon began to attack them, crossing from the Isle of Man. Though the Normans drove them off, they were then attacked by King Dermot’s Irish enemies.

Fortunately for Strongbow, in 1171 Henry became alarmed at the threat an independent Norman kingdom in Ireland might pose to his own empire. The continuing furore over Becket’s death may have been an additional spur prompting him to assert his rule over the neighbouring island and its warring inhabitants of Irish, Danish and Norman lords. The number of soldiers available to the master of the Angevin Empire was of course far larger than Strongbow’s forces. In consequence, little attempt was made to stand up to the first English king to regard himself as ruler of Ireland, and Henry soon set up an English administration in Dublin. The Irish chiefs in fact welcomed the king as protection against the Norman adventurers, while the Norman rulers’ submission was soon secured, and the Irish bishops at the Synod of Cashel likewise acknowledged Henry as their liege lord. Henry garrisoned the towns of Waterford and Wexford with his soldiers, brought Anglo-Norman merchants, Anglo-Norman law and Anglo-Norman monks to the country, and built a palace in Dublin. Here he passed the winter. He would have done more had he not been forced in 1173 to deal with a rebellion which had broken out throughout the empire in his absence, instigated by his wife and sons.

As a result the impact of the Norman invasion of Ireland, unlike that of England, was not very far reaching. It was really limited to the conglomeration of what became in effect self-contained little Norman kingdoms around Waterford, Wexford and Dublin. The territory where the crown’s writ ran came to be known much later as the Pale (from the Latinpalum, a stake, used to mark a boundary; this Irish usage gave rise to the expression ‘beyond the pale’). This territory was never a very well-defined area. In the fourteenth century it included Louth, Meath, Trim, Kilkenny and Kildare. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the chieftains and their clans had made enormous inroads into the Pale, while the old Norman families like the Fitzgeralds (whose leader was the Earl of Kildare) became so powerful and independent that the Tudors would feel the need to invade Ireland afresh in order to prevent the country becoming a base for a Yorkist revival (see below).

The revolt which forced Henry II’s return before he had accomplished his Irish mission was part of a pattern which would dog him for the rest of his life. It was the consequence of having a large empire, too many enemies in Scotland and France and too many sons. In 1173 and 1174 the rebellion against Henry stretched from the Tweed in the Borders to the Pyrenees, as all his enemies took advantage of his unpopularity after Becket’s murder and banded together.

By 1173 Henry’s elder sons were grown up. His passionate marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the former wife of King Louis VII of France, was faltering despite eight children in fifteen years. Queen Eleanor was a forceful, sophisticated woman of literary tastes whose patronage encouraged the flourishing romantic secular literature which was a striking new feature of the twelfth century and who had considerable political influence owing to her personal power over Aquitaine. She was now estranged from her husband, who had openly taken a mistress in Rosamund Clifford, the daughter of a Welsh marcher lord.

Where his grandfather had imported wild animals, Henry had built within the grounds of his favourite palace at Woodstock in Oxfordshire a private lodge of intricate eastern design. Known as Rosamund’s Bower, it had a water garden and could be approached only through a maze. Round the maze the king is believed to have planted the most ancient rose in the world, striped in dark pink and white, which had been brought back by the Crusaders from Damascus. He christened it the Rosamundi, as it is still known today, the rose of the world, as a tribute to his mistress. Fair Rosamund, as she came to be called, died young, and legend has it that Queen Eleanor persuaded one of the king’s men to betray the secret of the maze to her. One evening, it is said, when Fair Rosamund heard the sound of bugles and hoofs and went flying to the door, expecting the king’s arrival after hunting, she met only Queen Eleanor, who stabbed her to the heart.

What is certainly true is that Queen Eleanor took her sons’ part against the king. Like their father they were energetic, active and commanding personalities in the Angevin and Norman tradition. In 1169, four years before, Henry II had divided up his empire between them. His eldest son, known as the young King Henry, received England, Normandy and Anjou. Eleanor’s own Duchy of Aquitaine went to her favourite son, the brilliant, generous but violent warrior known to history as Richard the Lionheart (or Coeur de Lion). Brittany, which Henry II had conquered from its duke, went to the third son Geoffrey. Nevertheless–rather like King Lear–despite this apportionment Henry II had no intention of relinquishing the actual government or income of these lands into their supposed owners’ hands.

By March 1173, encouraged by the king of France Louis VII, whose greatest ambition was to break up the Angevin Empire, a conspiracy had been hatched among these sons. They could call on the soldiers of disgruntled barons, particularly in Aquitaine, such as the Count of Poitou whose legal rights (including holding courts and minting money) had been steadily eroded by Henry II’s reforms. That month all over the Angevin Empire attacks were mounted against the king’s forces. When the rebellion began Queen Eleanor had been stopped, disguised as a man, while fleeing to the French court to join her three sons. She was thrown into prison at Falaise in France with her companion, one of the rebel barons, Hugh of Chester. There she remained until Henry II died. Louis VII tried to invade Normandy, while the young King Henry set sail with a French fleet to attempt, with an equal lack of success, an invasion of England. Barons throughout Aquitaine attacked Henry’s garrisons, and once again Scotsmen under William the Lion went marauding through Northumbria. All the rebels were made more confident by the continuing reverberations from the murder of Becket. It is astonishing to record that the king, despite the enormity of the rebellion, defeated them all.

He achieved this with the aid of soldiers who remained loyal to him throughout the Angevin Empire. As has been seen, Henry II was naturally devout. In 1172, the year before the revolt broke out, he had finally reached an agreement with the pope known as the Compromise of Avranches. In order to be cleansed of his sins, he had accepted that appeals to Rome would not be stopped in his lifetime and he revoked the Constitutions of Clarendon, which Archbishop Thomas had refused to sign. As a result, until the Reformation in the sixteenth century any man who could read Latin could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ to save him from being tried in the king’s courts for any crime, however heinous. To some extent this restored the king to respectability, since England had the threat of papal interdict lifted. The clergy–many of whom had disapproved of Thomas à Becket–were reconciled to Henry, and this ensured that the whole civil service of clerks and government officials remained loyal to him. Almost none of the ordinary people of England joined the barons’ revolt, as they had little to gain and much to lose from a new anarchy.

After a year of fighting, despite holding off his enemies from abroad in 1174 and quelling the revolt in Aquitaine, Henry II’s affairs were still unsettled and England continued to be in a state of uproar. On 12 July 1174, impelled by a genuine desire to atone for the sin of murder, which he believed was preventing God from granting him victory, the great king went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, to do penance at Thomas’s shrine and beg forgiveness. It was a gesture that seized the (very inflammable) popular imagination. The king was barefoot like the poorest pilgrim and naked but for a shirt. When he got near the shrine, to symbolize his utter mortification Henry approached his friend’s grave on his knees. As he shuffled forward the monarch who was the Caesar of his day, as Giraldus Cambrensis called him, was scourged by monks wielding rods. He then spent the whole night lying before his former friend’s shrine in constant prayer. When amid what were now cheering crowds he reached London the next day, he discovered to his delight that while he had been on his knees at Canterbury the wily king of the Scots, William the Lion, had been captured during a raid on Alnwick in Northumberland.

Henry would always be lenient to his sons, but towards Scotland he was more hard-hearted. Ever since the days of Edward the Elder, kings of the Scots had been forced to acknowledge the king of the English as their overlord, though most of them secretly seized every opportunity to stir up trouble. But by the draconian Treaty of Falaise, which forced William the Lion to do homage to him, Henry II made sure that the overlordship meant what it said, planting garrisons in the main castles of Scotland–at Edinburgh, Stirling, Berwick, Roxburgh and Jedburgh. After this success Henry’s morale improved. With his old decisiveness he marched off to Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, which is still standing, to besiege Hugh Bigod, one of the most important leaders of the English barons’ rebellion. With Bigod’s capture, the threat of disorder at home also died down.

The next decade saw a period of internal consolidation within England, in contrast to the expansion which had marked the first part of Henry’s reign. The Assize of Arms of 1181 (an assize was a legislative ordinance), which revamped the laws for calling out the fyrd, was a reflection of Henry’s trust in the ordinary Englishman who had not risen against him during his sons’ revolt. Every freeman was ordered to keep arms in his home to defend his country or to suppress revolts against the king. This reform was also an attempt to shift military power away from the barons because, as with scutage, the Assize made Henry less dependent on their calling out their feudal levy. As a sign of the king’s new respect for his English subjects, from 1181 he stopped using foreign mercenaries in England, and employed them only abroad.

It was the next century which saw the development of professional English lawyers, trained at the infant universities of Oxford and Cambridge or at schools of higher learning based in cathedrals such as Exeter and York. Nevertheless, following a series of legal reforms implemented by Henry, England saw a rapid development in legal definition which by the thirteenth century would be termed the common law. In the penultimate year of Henry’s reign, in 1188, an anonymous writer calling himself Glanvill published a groundbreaking written summary of the laws and customs of the English,De legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae.

This itemized what were now the standard practices throughout the king’s courts in England. Glanvill’s importance was that he showed that there was a law ‘common’ to the whole of England available to freemen which could be appealed to over the separate manorial, baronial and ecclesiastical courts. Although it was Henry I who had first instituted the practice of travelling royal judges, under Henry II the system was formalized, and in 1176 England was divided into the same six circuits we have today. The king’s judges were now under a duty to visit every shire in the country, and hold an eyre (from the corrupt Latin foriter, a journey) or hearing in the shire, or county court so that every part of England could have the benefit of the king’s justice. Judges travelled on circuit on a six-monthly basis, co-ordinated by the legal bureau at the royal court at Westminster, which by then had become differentiated into two systems. The Court of Common Pleas dealt with land disputes and disputes between private individuals–that is, civil matters common to the whole kingdom. The Court of the King’s Bench tried criminal cases–which, as the name suggests, were sometimes heard in front of the king. The eyre was replaced in the thirteenth century by what was called the assize court or the assizes (from the Norman Frenchasseyer, to sit). These continued for 700 years until 1971, when their name was changed to crown court.

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Most of Henry’s laws made the country much safer for travel. The sheriff, whose office and functions the Normans had taken over pretty well wholesale from the Anglo-Saxons, while remaining the king’s financial agent in the county court, had his powers of law enforcement enhanced. To arrest a thief the sheriff could now enter anyone’s land, even if it was within the jurisdiction of the lord of the manor–a privilege hitherto limited to the lord or abbot. Sheriffs now resembled an early police force who were expected to co-operate with one another even outside their shire. Henry II also put a prison in every shire and attached a sergeant to every sheriff with the right to arrest suspects and bring them before a court and to break up fights in the village. Every citizen had a duty to raise the hue and cry if he saw a crime being committed and was required to chase after the criminal.

The reign of Henry II also saw the development of the jury trial we know today. From 1179, by the Assize of Northampton, a trial before twelve property owners could take the place of the Norman method of resolving land disputes known as the ordeal by battle. By the late twelfth century the growing numbers of trained lawyers–some of whom were being taught in the town of Oxford since being banned by Henry II from the University of Paris after 1167 when Louis VII sheltered Becket–introduced a new rationalism into the intellectual climate. The ordeal, which assumed that the miraculous intervention of God gave victory to the rightful owner, had begun to look absurd. After all, a man might simply be a stronger fighter. The new system of trial by jury made allowances for the old, for the weak and for women, and it was offered only by the king’s courts. By the beginning of the next century opinion in the Church itself rebelled against the old practice. In 1215 by a directive from the Lateran Council in Rome all priests were forbidden to have anything to do with trial by ordeal, and the custom died out soon after.

But Henry did not completely do away with all the ordeals which the Normans had introduced–indeed he produced some of his own. The ordeal by water for criminal trials was brought in in 1166. This required the accused to have his legs and arms tied before he was lowered into a vat of water blessed by the local priest. If the accused sank he was innocent, if he floated he was guilty. Another proof was the ordeal by hot iron; here, the accused was made to carry a piece of heated iron and if it made no mark then he was guilty. In general, however, for most freemen the trend was towards a more rational form of justice under the royal courts.

Henry II also gave England the new office of coroner, which still does much the same work today. Elected in the county or old shire court, the coroner was responsible for carrying out inquests on the bodies of those whose death was suspicious–if it was sudden or accidental or if there was reason to believe it had been murder. By law the coroner’s inquest had to be constituted very soon after the death, while the evidence was still fresh in the mind of witnesses.

At the time of the Conquest England had long had a fairly law-abiding population accustomed to the ancient tradition of the hundred and shire courts. Ever since the days of Cnut it had been compulsory under Anglo-Saxon law for each man to belong to a tithing for the purpose of maintaining good order. The process was refined when William the Conqueror imposed the heavy murdrum fine where a Norman was murdered and the hundred could not produce the murderer. Since the hundred might cover a very large area this became impractical, and by the end of the twelfth century a sort of self-policing known as the frankpledge was being practised in the smaller area of the tithing–that is, a community of ten men who were responsible for one another’s good conduct. The duty of the tithing was to bring any criminal they suspected before the hundred court. Under Henry II it also became one of the sheriff’s functions to make sure that every man in the shire belonged to a tithing.

Although he was incapable of devolving responsibility to his sons, Henry was a generous-spirited man full of family feeling. He had been furious with his elder sons for rebelling against him, but nonetheless decided to believe their protestations of regret and restored them to their lands. His wife, however, remained under lock and key. After he had defeated the revolt there was no question but that Henry II was the greatest monarch of the age. His daughters, moreover, were married to the most powerful kings in Christendom. The system of informal royal alliances that this inaugurated between England on the one hand and Castile (the most important country in Spain), Germany and Flanders on the other set the pattern of foreign alliances for several hundred years.

Similarly the enmity with France continued to be a main theme of English policy. In 1180 the succession of Philip II, known as Philip Augustus, to the French throne brought a far more cunning enemy of the Angevin Empire into play. The last years of Henry II were very sad ones. One of the reasons for the first rebellion against him had been the favouritism he showed towards his youngest son John, to whom he had begun making over castles which belonged to the young King Henry. Ten years younger than his nearest brother Richard, John was a short (five feet five) black-haired youth who was known as Jean Sans Terre or John Lackland because he had no obvious lands to inherit, unlike his elder brothers. He has had a very bad press down the centuries, given his odious moral character and his liking for physical cruelty, but modern historians are impressed by his administrative competence and his interest in justice.

Contemporary historians, however, detested him. At the time the historian Geraldus Cambrensis did not mince his words about the mistake John’s doting father Henry II had made in deciding that his new possession, Ireland, might make up for John’s lack of lands. In 1185 he sent him as lord of Ireland to govern the country, though he was aged only eighteen, having tried and failed to persuade Richard to yield Aquitaine to John–the death of the young King Henry meant that Richard was now heir to Normandy and England. But he was forced to withdraw John from Ireland within the year on account of his grotesque behaviour. Paying no attention to older advisers and keeping company only with foolish young men of his own age, John failed to behave to the Irish kings with the courtesy they deserved. He pulled their long beards, which were the fashion in Ireland (an oddity to clean-shaven Normans) and granted their lands to his favourites. Despite all this, the infatuated king continued to push the cause of John, at the expense of Richard the Lionheart.

Eleven years after the first revolt of Henry’s sons in 1183, another rebellion threatened in Richard’s own Duchy of Aquitaine. The proud and restless barons there had felt Richard’s firm hand for too long. They were easily encouraged by the young King Henry and his next brother Geoffrey of Brittany to rebel against their overlord. It was a revolt which again threatened to dissolve the Angevin Empire when Toulouse and Burgundy sent aid. So dangerous was the situation that Henry II gave orders that all the barons who had taken part in the first revolt should be locked up. With the sudden death of the young King Henry from dysentery, the rebellion died away almost as quickly as it had sprung up. But the new heir to the throne, Richard, had an even more stormy relationship with his father.

The golden-haired, blue-eyed Richard was cast in a heroic mould. Attractive, generous, fiery and impulsive, he did not have his father’s brains, but he had his temper and his military flair. Though Richard was now the heir presumptive to England, Normandy and Anjou, Henry’s secret plan was to make these lands John’s. After failing to obtain Aquitaine for John, for four years Henry refused to name Richard his heir. He would not have him crowned as he had his elder brother, nor would he make the necessary arrangements to hurry up his marriage to Princess Alice of France, the sister of the young King Henry’s widow.

Henry’s refusal to treat Richard properly would lead to the beginning of the end of the Angevin Empire. It not only gave the new King of France, Philip Augustus, an excuse to begin hostilities against his over-powerful subject, the King of England. It drove a bitter Richard permanently into Philip’s camp. As will be recalled, the return to Henry II of the Norman Vexin was dependent on the marriage between Philip’s sister and the young king. This dowry was now transferred to Alice, the next sister, but Henry’s foot-dragging meant that she was still not married to Richard. When neither the Vexin nor his sister returned to France, Philip Augustus had a perfect excuse for war. Though it ended in a truce, Richard was soon responding again to the French king’s overtures.

Relations became thornier than ever between father and son on account of Henry’s behaviour over the Third Crusade, in 1189. Richard the Lionheart, as he soon became known, passionately wished to go on this Crusade to rescue the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had fallen to the brilliant new Muslim warlord the Kurd Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria. But in such an uncertain situation he would have been foolish to depart unless and until his father named him as heir; this Henry II continued to refuse to do. Richard therefore not only publicly did homage to the French king for his lands in France but simultaneously joined with the French king to invade Henry’s Angevin holdings.

By mischance his father was in France, but did not have enough loyal English troops with him to fight on so many fronts. He ran out of gold to pay his mercenaries, who therefore deserted him. Henry’s tenants-in-chief in Maine and Anjou all went over to the victorious young kings, and he was driven out of Le Mans too. But some atavistic sentiment made him reluctant to leave his native land of Anjou for Normandy, where he would have found greater loyalty. Perhaps he was too tired to make a last stand, for he was also ill with a debilitating fever. From an old Angevin stronghold, the castle of Chinon, perched on rocky heights above the River Vienne, he was forced to come to a humiliating treaty with Philip and Richard which granted their every demand. He was so unwell when he arrived at the meeting at Colombières, shaking and trembling, that Philip offered him his cloak and suggested he sit on the grass, but the old king angrily refused.

Afterwards, back in his bed at the castle of Chinon, the king scanned the names of the rebels whom Philip and Richard demanded should now do homage to Richard as their liege lord instead of to himself. When at the top of it he saw the name of his beloved son John he turned his face to the wall and was heard by his courtiers to cry, ‘O John! John!’ Then he said dully, ‘Let things go as they will. I no longer care for anything in this world.’ He died three days later. In his last agony he was heard by those about him to mutter, ‘Shame, shame on a defeated king.’

In his palace at Winchester, Henry had commissioned a painting which to him summed up the last years of his life with his sons grown up: three young eagles were attacking their parent bird, while a fourth was standing on his neck ready to peck out its eyes. It proved all too prescient.

When he was dead he was borne through the rolling Angevin hills to the Abbey of Fontevrault, where you can still see his tomb. Beside him lies Queen Eleanor. Enemies by the end of their lives, they were united in death. But although (as one historian has said) Henry was a lion savaged by jackals, so great were his achievements that many of the methods of justice and government that he designed endured for eight centuries. His superb bureaucracy ensured that England continued to flourish for some time after his death, despite the worst efforts of his two careless sons.

Richard I (1189–1199) 

Once he had assumed the throne Richard’s behaviour underwent a marked change. One chronicler reported that when he approached his father’s body at the start of the funeral procession the corpse started to spew blood from its nostrils as a sign that the murderer of the dead man was near by. But Richard was a man transformed. He fell into paroxysms of grief, punished all those who had rebelled with him except his mother, whom he released from prison in Winchester, and rewarded his father’s most loyal supporters, including William Marshall who had once challenged him to single combat on behalf of the old king. His close relationship with Philip Augustus would shortly become one of bitter enmity.

As far as Richard the Lionheart was concerned, the single most important event of his day was the fall of the Christian Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin, the new Muslim warlord ruler of Syria. A Kurd from Mesopotamia (today Iraq), Saladin the Great was overlord of much of the Middle East and was in the process of expelling all the Latin or western European settlements from Palestine.

Palestine, as the cradle of the world’s three most important monotheistic faiths, was and is a land of great religious significance. By strange coincidence the tiny city of Jerusalem was the site of many of their separate revelations. It was the scene of Christ’s death, just as Palestine was the scene of his life, and contained the Holy Sepulchre, site of his tomb in the rock. On the very same spot as the Holy Sepulchre were the ruins of the destroyed Temple of Solomon, sacred to the Jews. It was also believed that it was there that Abraham had been narrowly saved from sacrificing Isaac by seeing a ram in the thicket. And the same piece of ground was believed by Muslims to have been the very spot from which Mohammed was taken to Heaven. In honour of Mohammed, the Dome or Mosque of the Rock had been built by Muslims–who were the country’s most recent conquerors.

The triumphant First Crusade of 1095–9, which had been launched to liberate the Holy Land, had established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem as well as the counties of Edessa, Tripoli and Antioch under an Angevin relation of Henry II named Count Baldwin. Since Henry was the head of the Angevin family, on the fall of Jerusalem the Patriarch Heraclius arrived in England on a special mission to implore him and his many armies to liberate the city. But Henry remained unconvinced. For all his religious devotion, mounting a Crusade was a lengthy, dangerous and extremely expensive business. In his view the Angevin Empire was not in sufficiently good shape to be left without a ruler. Since 1166 there had already been a tax for the Crusades of a penny in the pound for every freeman; in response to the patriarch, Henry now imposed the severe Saladin tax or tithe, one-tenth of all freemen’s personal goods to raise money for the Crusade.

This action failed to satisfy contemporary opinion, which would have liked the king to lead a Crusade but did not wish to pay the Saladin tithe. In the end the majority of the Crusaders would go off as private citizens. It was what one historian has called an ‘armed pilgrimage’, in return for which Pope Urban II promised spiritual indulgences to smooth the way to heaven. The Crusades were the closet thing to a mass movement in the intensely religious middle ages. At a time when Bible stories were the only universal literary stimulus, liberating the places where Christ had passed his life–Bethlehem, Nazareth, Canaan, Galilee, Mount Calvary–had an almost unbearable emotional resonance.

Richard Coeur de Lion was no more immune from the lure of the great Crusade adventure than the next man, especially as his chief calling was to be a soldier of great strategic brilliance. He had honed his military skills in reducing the powers of the wild southern barons of Aquitaine, and he believed that he could be particularly useful at avenging the honour of the Christian west after the Second Crusade, to liberate Edessa and led by the French and German armies, had ended in disaster. Perhaps, too, like many a Crusader he had a yen to see the world.

The new king more than made up for his father’s reluctance to expose his lands to the dangers of his absence on the Third Crusade. In the ten years of his reign Richard I visited England only twice–first to be crowned, and second to raise money. He had none of his father’s interest in good government or in eradicating corruption. The office of sheriff was openly put up for sale in every county; by paying Richard 10,000 marks the Scottish king William the Lion was allowed to annul the Treaty of Falaise. The new justiciar of England, William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely, was a long-term official of the Angevin civil service, but in the new climate it was rumoured that he had purchased his office. Richard himself joked that he would have sold London itself if he could have found a buyer. Nevertheless the great administrative structures set up by Henry II proved their worth: England was governed very successfully without a king during all those years of the Lionheart’s absence.

Despite this southern Frenchman’s cavalier treatment of precious institutions and his evident lack of interest in the country, there has never been a King of England who arouses quite such enthusiasm as Richard. Somehow the gaiety and generosity of his character, his devil-may-care spirit and his endless adventures continue to blind many to the less attractive sides of his nature. At the beginning of his reign his easy gesture of granting a general amnesty to all those in prison, particularly those who had been prosecuted for the forest laws, has endeared him in popular myth ever since, linking him indissolubly with that mythical prince of forest thieves Robin Hood and hinting at the insubordinate native British desire to sympathize with the rebel. But it was under this great warrior that there began the worst persecution of the Jewish community in English history, after a mob had attacked Jewish leaders attending Richard’s coronation.

After their expulsion from Israel by the Romans towards the end of the first century, the Jewish people dispersed round the world, an event known as the Diaspora. In twelfth-century England, whose population was about two and a half million, the Jews were a tiny minority of perhaps 5,000 individuals who tended to be mobile traders, merchants and moneylenders. Their skill in finance meant that they were one of the medieval equivalents of banks for European governments, and they were protected by the post-Conquest Norman and Angevin monarchs who relied on them for loans and taxed them at will. They lived in a separate quarter in towns, and spoke Hebrew among themselves. They were noted for their different foods, taboos and religious rituals, which were far more strictly observed 900 years ago than they are today.

Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian Church, was the most famous Jewish man in history, while the Apostles and Disciples whose writings Christian scholars argued about were converted Jews. But during the Crusades, when the papacy was preaching an armed campaign against unbelievers of all kinds, parish priests were encouraged to attack Jews from the pulpit. The Christian Church began to dwell on the old belief that the Jewish population of Jerusalem more than a thousand years before had elected to crucify Christ. The parish priest also told his congregation that the practice of loaning money for interest was the sin of usury–even though this was secretly engaged in by Christian moneylenders, and is of course standard banking procedure today.

Until the Crusades the average English person had very little to do with the Jews, apart from those in the merchant fraternity, though there was a Jewish presence in most important southern English towns as well as York. But the need for money to finance a Crusade changed relations between the two communities. For the first time landowning knights who wished to go on crusade needed large amounts of cash. The quickest way of finding it was to raise mortgages on their land, and the best people for cash tended to be Jewish moneylenders, who could tap their overseas contacts to offer extra liquidity. Inspired by religious enthusiasm the Christian knights borrowed immense sums which they often were scarcely in a position to repay.

Although anti-Jewish feeling had been growing for the past century, since the start of the Crusades, concrete manifestations of it began at Richard the Lionheart’s coronation. Anti-Jewish prejudice was increased by the handling of the interest on the Crusaders’ debts. Knights would return from the Crusades to be told that the interest rate had changed in their absence. If it unexpectedly rose to say 50 per cent on a loan or higher, which it not infrequently did, a small landowner who could not service his debt would find that half his land passed to his creditors. Cash poor, used to a feudal rural life and a barter economy, the Crusaders had no understanding of interest and compound interest. They were aware only of the apparently unfair use of it to make money.

And it was on the Jewish rather than the Christian moneylenders that the Christian English knights vented their ire. As a minority the Jews became a scapegoat for the improvidence of small landowners, who had forgotten that if they borrowed money they would have to pay it back. Inevitably, when the day of reckoning came, Crusaders resented having to sell land to pay off their debts.

At Richard I’s coronation banquet the arrival uninvited of the most important members of the Jewish community with splendid gifts seems to have been the spark for the shameful conflagration that swept England. The mass of London’s citizenry–many of whom were smaller merchants in debt to Jewish moneylenders–as well as the smaller barons turned on the Jews. They drove them out of the banqueting hall, severely injuring many of them in the process. The king and his soldiers made an attempt to halt them, but the mob swarmed towards the Jewish quarter, hanging its inhabitants and burning their houses. Afterwards not enough was done by the king to seek out and punish the rioters.

This probably encouraged people up and down the country to turn on Jews in the towns, inventing lies about their customs. During the autumn and winter there were massacres at Norwich, Stamford, Lincoln, Bury St Edmund’s and elsewhere. It was at York, however, that the worst outrage took place, when 500 Jewish men, women and children who took refuge in the city’s castle against a band of armed men were attacked with the aid of the warden’s retainers. Many committed suicide, and those who did not were slaughtered where they stood. Their murderers were motivated not only by ethnic hatred, but more sinisterly by a desire to wipe out the great debts they owed the Jews. Many of them were the men-at-arms of important local families. They had been instructed to go straight to the Minster, where the Jews had deposited the bonds which Crusading families had given them for debt, and burn them all. They did so in a large bonfire in the Minster. At a stroke huge debts were wiped off many of the Crusaders’ estates.

Although the perpetrators of the massacre at York were sternly punished by William Longchamp, the justiciar, the Jewish communities never recovered their former confidence, or indeed their wealth. They remained in England for another hundred years, continuing to be protected as moneylenders by the crown until, in another fit of Christian religious enthusiasm, Richard’s great-nephew Edward I expelled them in 1290.

Though England had been left with excellent regents in William Longchamp and the king’s mother Queen Eleanor, the long absence of Richard in Palestine meant that the good order of the country was soon threatened. The opposition was headed by his brother John and the great barons themselves. They resented the power of the justiciar Longchamp. Like many of those who served the Angevins, Longchamp was a man of natural ability who had not sprung from the baronial classes. In the treacherous and scheming John the barons found a perfect foil for their plans. A struggle against the royal administration involving parts of the country in civil war began shortly after Richard the Lionheart left the country. Despite John’s nickname of Lackland, the king’s brother now ruled much of south-west England. He had been left in charge of it by Richard, who had a low opinion of John’s military abilities and no interest in his compensating cunning.

Richard was careless in most things and, though his legacy to England was a series of useful alliances encircling the Angevin Empire, he generally believed force to be the superior of diplomacy. As the French and English armies travelled east to the Holy Land he chose to ignore a new hostility in his old comrade, the French king Philip Augustus, who resented his new position as head of the Angevin Empire. Far from conciliating him, the English king had not only failed to marry Princess Alice but insulted the French by substituting an alliance with the kingdom of Navarre in northern Spain to protect the empire’s southern tip. At Messina in Sicily, where the French and Angevin imperial troops were gathering on the last leg of their journey to Palestine Richard publicly repudiated Princess Alice and married the beautiful Princess Berengaria of Navarre, yet continued to hold on to the Vexin.

In the Holy Land, Richard’s outstanding qualities as a military tactician aroused the envy of his fellow monarchs. For over two years they had been besieging without success the Latin citadel of Acre, formidable on its promontory. On the plain below its towering yellow battlements stretched the armies of Christendom and row after row of tents. On the heights above them were Saladin’s armies, whose presence was causing the Crusaders’ supply of food to dwindle: the besiegers were besieged.

In contrast to the European heavy armour which gave many Crusaders sunstroke in the intensely hot weather, the Syrians’, or Saracens’, headpieces were not hot metal but turbans in bright colours which protected them from the sun. The Christian west’s military advantage over the Muslim east lay in the crossbow–but it availed them very little on the Third Crusade: Saladin was on home territory, and his men were used to desert conditions. They had supply lines to the interior, better horses (the swift Arab breed then unknown to Europe) and a lighter sword, the curved scimitar, which could find its target more quickly than the unwieldy three-foot-long weapon used by the Crusaders. In contrast to Saladin’s armies, most of the Crusaders were in very poor health. An epidemic had raged through their poorly situated camp with its bad drainage, killing many, including such important figures as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Ranulf Glanvill.

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Nevertheless with Richard present manoeuvres took on a new momentum. Superior management of siege engines beat down the Saracens’ resistance. Unlike the other European kings, Richard the Lionheart led from the front, exhibiting the personal valour that made his men worship him. He fought hand to hand and used his crossbow with perfect accuracy, picking Saracens off against the skyline. Under the Lionheart Acre was captured from Saladin.

But the first significant victory against the Muslims for fifty years only added to the tensions already troubling relations between the different national camps of the vast, sickly and bored European armies. The French and English kings quarrelled over their opposing candidates for the crown of Jerusalem. Morale was poor among the German soldiers, whose emperor had been drowned on the journey to Palestine. The Austrians had played little part in relieving Acre but were anxious to share in the glory of liberating it. They were especially annoyed, after they had hung Austrian flags over the citadel’s battlements, to find that English soldiers tore them down and threatened to throw the Austrians over the battlements if they put up any more. When their leader Duke Leopold complained to Richard, he did nothing to discipline his men: once again he was not concerned with diplomatic relations. Though the English king had fallen victim to the camp’s terrible shivering fever which had decimated the Christian army, he insisted on pushing on to Jerusalem. By August 1191 the short and dark Philip Augustus had had enough of standing in the charismatic Richard’s glorious shadow and decided that Coeur de Lion’s obsession with the Crusade made it the perfect moment to stir up trouble in England’s continental dominions. Pleading illness, he left abruptly for France.

Weak from camp fever, though in high spirits now that it was on the move again, the bedraggled army started tailing its painful way south along the coast before turning up to the rocky heights where stood Jerusalem. As they marched the Crusaders chanted their battle cry: ‘Help, help, help for the Holy Sepulchre!’ By the camp fires each night, one man would start the call and then it would spread throughout the tents, rousing the soldiers to forget their suffering and fulfil their mission to free the Holy Places.

At the Battle of Arsuf, exploiting his still formidable infantry and brilliant crossbowmen, Richard the Lionheart snatched victory from Saladin, who had never previously been defeated in the open field. This event sent waves of hope across Europe and raised Richard’s stock even higher among the men. But in the end, though the Lionheart twice led his troops within twelve miles of the Holy City, he was stymied by the failure of his supply lines and the exhaustion of his men. Saladin’s army remained largely unbroken.

Forced to retreat, because he had decided it would be madness to besiege Jerusalem, Richard achieved a treaty in 1192 whose terms Saladin would have granted to no one else–a mark of the great eastern warrior’s respect for his generalship. Christians were once again allowed to visit the Holy Sepulchre and to do business all over the city, and Joppa and its district became Christian. But when the courteous Saladin invited Richard to visit the Holy City himself, the king refused. He would not enter the city which God had not permitted him to deliver.

Although Richard had fought Saladin to a standstill over Jerusalem, the Third Crusade like its predecessor was a consummate failure. It did not achieve its immediate objective, which was to bring the Holy Places under Christian control; and in the course of it the previously allied French and English kings became the deadliest of enemies. On the other hand the social intercourse with the Arab world which the Crusades encouraged transformed western Christendom. In a great many respects the Arab culture was far in advance of the Christian. The transfer of superior technology from the west to the east which was to be such a feature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was then in the opposite direction. Western Europe benefited enormously from contact with scientific Arab medicine, which very slowly undermined the superstitious practices of the west. Arab science and mathematics introduced the zero and the decimal point, while the Arab use of spices showed the west how to preserve food. In European architecture the ogee or narrow twisting arch so characteristic of the thirteenth century was a direct transmission from Arab architecture.

With the end of the Third Crusade, Richard began to make his way back as fast as possible to England and to an empire threatened by the plots of his younger brother. Word had reached him that it was no longer safe to travel through France because of the French king’s hostility. He therefore had to take the long route north through Germany. At home John was making common cause with Philip Augustus. Just as Philip had drawn Richard into his schemes when he was the heir to the throne, the French king now offered John the spurned hand of his sister Princess Alice. In return his overlord proposed that John should have the English continental possessions, though this was hardly a straightforward proposition. In Richard’s absence the French king had been exhorting the barons of Normandy to become his liege men and throw off English rule.

England meanwhile was racked by sieges and rebellions led by John and the barons, who had found support in the country owing to the ever higher rate of taxation demanded to finance the Crusade. By 1191 the opposition was sufficiently powerful to bring about the justiciar Longchamp’s downfall. Fortunately, just at this moment one of Richard’s most trusted advisers, Hubert Walter, Bishop of Salisbury, arrived back from the Crusades to be appointed the new justiciar, as Richard had directed, before one of John’s men could take his place. Nevertheless, events seemed to be moving in John’s favour. For at the beginning of 1193, King Richard fell into the clutches of his envious fellow Crusader, the Duke of Austria, who then sold him on to the emperor Henry VI.

The story of Richard’s captivity, his charm, his bravery, his carelessness–attempting to cross Austria in disguise, he forgot to remove his beautiful royal gloves–sparked a thousand legends. Most famous is the story of Blondel, his minstrel. For three months it seemed that the Lionheart had vanished into thin air. Warned by Philip Augustus, John had begun circulating the rumour that the great Crusader was dead. Blondel set out to search the whole of Europe for the friend whose death he refused to accept. In Aquitaine they had spent long hours together writing verses in celebration of the virtues of the Christian knight. According to legend, as Blondel walked through the mountains overlooking the Danube Plain he was by chance singing one of the troubadour ballads he and the king had composed together. To his astonishment, floating over the trees from where the forbidding castle of Durnstein loomed above him he heard a great bass voice singing the next verse.

Whether or not it was Blondel who brought the news of the king’s whereabouts back to England, the emperor Henry VI demanded the immense sum of 100,000 marks for his release–a formidable imposition on a country already reeling from taxes levied to pay for the Crusade. Nevertheless, under the leadership of the masterful Queen Eleanor, most of it would be found a year later, in 1194. Chalices and crucifixes in every church were melted down for their silver, while every freeman paid the colossal amount of one-quarter of his earnings to the government. The Cistercian monasteries pioneering the farming of sheep in Yorkshire were forced to yield up their entire takings from that year’s sheep sales.

There was no question of the ransom not being paid. Henry VI was threatening that, if it was not met, he would hand Richard over to the King of France, which would mean the end of the Angevin Empire. Much of that was anyway tottering under Philip Augustus’ incursions. His attempts to detach Normandy from England had been unsuccessful while Richard was free: as a Crusader, the Lionheart commanded a good deal of loyalty. But the minute Richard was captured the situation became more nebulous. Philip Augustus succeeded in overrunning the Vexin, which guarded the southern entrance to Normandy, and even got as far as its capital Rouen before being thrown back.

There was thus in 1193 a distinct window of opportunity for the two plotters. John was convinced that the moment to usurp the throne had come–Richard was still in captivity and, despite the harsh measures taken to raise the ransom, the English government had not yet completed the task. John now showed his hand. He crossed the Channel to meet Philip in Paris and did homage for England’s French possessions, and possibly for England too. Then he put into effect their joint plan. John mounted his own rebellion in England against his brother’s government, while the French king began stockpiling boats to invade across the Channel.

England was saved by the emperor’s fear of France’s ambitions. An alliance was arranged: in order to secure his freedom, Richard had to do homage for England to the emperor and hold it as the emperor’s fief. In practice this amounted to very little. Richard was released from this obligation on the emperor’s death and the ransom was never paid in its entirety. The important fact was that the empire and England were now allied against France, and it was in France that Richard spent the last five years of his life, attempting to regain the advantage from Philip Augustus.

With the news that Richard was returning, the French invasion of England and John’s rebellion collapsed. John received a brief note from the well-informed Philip that said succinctly, ‘Look to yourself, the Devil is loose’ shortly afterwards John left for Normandy. The takeover had never been a foregone conclusion. Queen Eleanor had shown courage and decision in rallying the English people to her eldest son and putting the country’s defences into a state of alert. English ships vigilantly patrolled the Channel. But no sooner had Richard returned to England than he left it, though not before raising more taxes and undergoing a second coronation ceremony to remind the people who was king. He never saw the country again.

In charge of the government the king left his efficient justiciar, Hubert Walter, whom he had also made Archbishop of Canterbury. The nephew of Ranulf Glanvill, Walter had been part of Henry II’s administration at the end of the great king’s life. Trained in the law, he was the perfect administrative instrument to devise higher taxes for the rising numbers of professional soldiers required for the French campaigns, for building defensive castles, and for paying the princes of the Low Countries and north Germany to remain allied to England against France. But a spirit of revolt was growing among the English, whose wealth in many cases had been seriously depleted by the king’s ransom. For the next four years England was groaning with the cost of the war to win back Angevin territory from France.

In 1198, the year before the Lionheart died, the barons were again provoked into revolt by a demand that they provide more soldiers for Richard under their feudal obligations. In question among the tenants-in-chief was how much service they were required to give the king by the feudal levy which had developed from the old fyrd. Defending their native land from attack was one thing, but endless foreign service seemed another. Moreover, they were being asked to provide more than forty days per year. They were joined by many more disinterested characters like the saintly churchman and administrator Bishop Hugh of Lincoln. Hugh of Lincoln protested at the strain these demands were imposing on the tenants of his own episcopal lands and refused to insist upon them. It was therefore a triumph for him when Hubert Walter was dismissed as justiciar and replaced by Geoffrey Fitz Peter, the Earl of Essex.

But Richard was not really interested in the anger of the English. His campaign to push the French armies of Philip Augustus back into their own country was working, and he had regained most of his territories east of the Seine, as well as the Norman Vexin. To protect Normandy from further invasion by Philip Augustus, he built a great castle high on a cliff overlooking the Seine near the town of Les Andelys, whose noble ruins you can still see today. The frontier castle is another testament to the king’s outstanding engineering skills, and was built extremely swiftly, in just under a year. The king gazed at the finished building with immense pride and said, ‘Is this not a saucy babe that at twelve months can keep the King of France at bay?’ The French for saucy wasgaillard, and it was known ever after as Château Gaillard.

For all Richard the Lionheart’s military genius, his violent temperament and natural inclination towards war sometimes led him into launching attacks on vassal barons in disputes that were not worth the cost of the campaign. In the course of one such escapade in April 1199 Richard I met his death. A vassal of his at Chalus, deep in the Limousin in the centre of the Aquitainian territory, had found an enormous silver treasure trove buried in the earth. When he refused to surrender it to Richard as his overlord, the king went to war against him. While he watched the siege on horseback, a bolt from a crossbow, that weapon he himself had made so famous, flew out from one of the castle’s slit windows and buried itself in his chest. Attempts to remove it by an incompetent surgeon were unsuccessful, and the wound became infected because of the king’s own impatient efforts to wrench it out. As the Lionheart lay dying, his men captured the castle, which had been defended by only seven knights and eight serving men. Generous as ever, Richard insisted on pardoning his assailant, though once he had died his men were not so magnanimous.

On his deathbed Richard the Lionheart called all his most important tenants-in-chief to him and made them swear allegiance to John, since he and Berengaria were childless. Richard’s nephew Arthur was his natural heir, as the son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey of Brittany. But the Norman and Angevin kings had kept up the tradition of the old English monarchy of choosing a more suitable heir as long as he had royal blood. With the support of his mother Queen Eleanor, by the end of May 1199 John had at last achieved his heart’s desire and been crowned King of England.

John (1199–1216) 

Until the late nineteenth century, John’s reputation was one of the lowest. His decadent personal habits and taste for cruelty, which was egregious even in a brutal age (he had an appetite for ordeals and executions), cast a long shadow. In addition, his quarrel with the papacy turned all monk chroniclers against him. As the curator of the once formidable Angevin Empire he was soon to be humiliated by the loss of Normandy and all his northern French possessions. England was left only with the Channel Islands as the last remnant of the Norman duchy, and Queen Eleanor’s country of Aquitaine.

In some ways John was in fact a better ruler of England than his brother. But personal habits aside, he lacked Richard’s glamour as a holy warrior in an age when war was dominant–indeed he had had a purely ecclesiastical education in the typical way of a younger son. Partly as a result of his unwarlike nature, he ended up spending the greater part of his life in England, the longest period of any Norman king since William the Conqueror. Like Henry II he became intimately concerned with every detail of English life, and having the Angevin passion for royal administration he was forever journeying through his new realm. He also shared his father’s fascination with justice, and was noted for exercising his right to hear the cases of the King’s Bench. Though myth paints him as the venomous foe of the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, in fact King John took care to make the forest laws of his forefathers less harsh. Aged thirty-three when he came to the throne, he had matured from the silly youth of fifteen years before who had pulled the Irish elders’ beards.

Even so, John was a tyrannical, greedy and lawless ruler. Like William Rufus he was unscrupulous when it came to other people’s property, and made permanent enemies of the Church and the barons by his constant scheming to appropriate their wealth. By the end of his reign so deep was the distrust he inspired that men said he kidnapped the heirs to great fortunes and murdered them.

Although John’s accession to the English throne had been painless, it was a different matter in France. In 1199 war broke out between the two countries when the French king Philip Augustus decided to recognize as head of the Angevin Empire the thirteen-year-old Arthur of Brittany, John’s nephew. This did not get Philip very far, and the following year he had to accept John’s homage in relation to his French possessions. But the war he desired in order to dismember his greatest rival on French territory soon broke out again. John, who had just repudiated his childless wife Isabella of Gloucester, hit on the idea of marrying Isabella of Angoulême, which brought her territory into his empire and provided access to Aquitaine. Unfortunately Isabella of Angoulême had been engaged to an unruly and well-connected Poitevin baron named Hugh de Lusignan who was affronted by the King of England’s seizure of what he believed to be his property. He soon found many other turbulent Poitevin barons who resented the erosion of their powers by John’s autocratic ways.

Headed by de Lusignan they appealed to Philip Augustus as John’s overlord to right the wrongs being done to them by the King of England. This gave Philip his final chance to break up the Angevin Empire and he took it. John refused to answer the charges brought against him in the French king’s court, and in 1202 the court declared that he had forfeited all his lands in French territory. To ensure that the message was clear, Philip Augustus then recognized the fifteen-year-old Arthur of Brittany as the ruler of Brittany, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Aquitaine. With French armies Arthur invaded those territories himself, while Philip went into Normandy, his real objective, as capturing the duchy would give him control of the north coast–the natural hinterland for his capital of Paris.

At this point there occurred the event which blackened John’s name through history. Following his nephew to Poitou, where Arthur was besieging his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine with the help of the Poitevin barons, John defeated him in battle–to everyone’s surprise, for Richard’s low opinion of John’s military capabilities was universal. He then imprisoned his nephew in his castle at Falaise, before moving him to Rouen, the capital of Normandy. By 1203 Arthur was dead, almost certainly murdered. Contemporaries believed that it was John himself who had performed the deed, by night and in disguise, probably in one of his famous Angevin rages.

Whatever the truth about Arthur’s death, it was of no benefit to his uncle John. Philip’s forces swiftly overran Anjou, Touraine and Maine, while Brittany came over to France out of anger about Arthur’s murder. By 1204 Normandy too belonged to the French crown. Theoretically, of all the English possessions the duchy was the most difficult for France to seize. It had a long connection to England, and the pro-English feeling was greatly strengthened by the trading links between the two countries. What was more, many of its barons were Anglo-Normans who held property on both sides of the Channel. It had magnificent defences against France, the greatest of which was Richard’s Château Gaillard. But the barons were very disaffected, and Philip Augustus was a better strategist than John, who tended to procrastinate and stayed in England when he should have been fighting in Normandy. Although Château Gaillard held out for six months until early March, John had really abandoned Normandy long before that. When his mother Eleanor died the following month, the last feelings of Norman loyalty towards the English crown evaporated. By Midsummer Day 1204 all the great possessions in northern France that King John had inherited from William the Conqueror and Geoffrey of Anjou were lost.

The loss of Normandy was an event of central importance for England. Although it was viewed as a disaster at the time, it forced the great Anglo-Norman barons to choose whether their loyalties were to England or to Normandy, for they could no longer hold land in both. The Norman Conquest was superseded by the renewed development of the English as a nation and a unified state under an exclusively English king. No longer linked by the Angevin Empire, the Duchy of Aquitaine, which was all that remained of the English crown’s French possessions, became in effect an independent English colony.

A permanent English navy to guard the Channel became a matter of pressing importance, as it had not been since 1066. Until 1204 much of the coast facing southern England belonged to friendly Normandy, so most of the ordinary business of guarding the coast in peacetime could be handled by the towns known as the Cinque Ports–Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich (Winchelsea and Rye becamesix et septlater). By a longstanding arrangement, in exchange for freedom from taxes and the right to tax within their own walls, they were legally required to provide fifty-seven ships for use by themselves and the king. But after the loss of Normandy these measures were supplemented partly by impressment and partly by the turning over to the royal government of any merchant ships captured in the Channel.

If the king now had a reputation for being unlucky, after his quarrel with the papacy he was believed to be cursed. In 1205 Hubert Walter, who had remained Archbishop of Canterbury, died. Although technically it was the right of the monks of the Cathedral Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral to elect the head of the Church in England, it had been generally accepted since William the Conqueror that the king would play a large part in the choice. Unfortunately the monks behaved foolishly. They secretly elected their undistinguished sub-prior Reginald without the king’s permission and sent him to Rome to receive thepalliumfrom Pope Innocent III. But, though Reginald had been warned not to boast about his new position until the pope had confirmed it, the sub-prior, being both indiscreet and vain, insisted on travelling very slowly in tremendous pomp towards Rome as befitted his new dignity, attended by priests and outriders. As a result, the king soon found out what was going on and despatched his own royal candidate to Rome instead, the Bishop of Norwich, who was equally unworthy of this great office.

Neither of these choices satisfied the great pope of the middle ages, Innocent III. He insisted that the monks’ chapter elect Cardinal Stephen Langton, a distinguished English theologian living in Rome, and he then invested him as Archbishop of Canterbury. But John did not take this lying down, and refused to allow the new archbishop into the country. There was some justification for this: in all the battles between the papacy and the English kings no pope had ever dared to appoint the head of the English Church against England’s wishes. Nevertheless, John’s stand derived less from principle than from his desire to have his own creature running the Church who would help milk the tantalizingly wealthy Church lands. A stalemate ensued, since the pope for his part would not recognize the Bishop of Norwich. It was broken by Innocent III putting the whole country under an interdict. All religious services were forbidden.

This was only the beginning of the pope’s campaign to use all the weapons at his disposal to bring the King of England to heel. Although the interdict meant very little to the irreligious John, it was a catastrophe for ordinary people. Churches were closed. Weddings could not be celebrated. The dead were buried in unconsecrated ground to the great distress of the population. Only the first and last rites of baptism and extreme unction (the sacrament of the dying), out of fear for the soul, were permitted. Church bells, which in days without clocks marked the passing hours, were eerily silent as if in reproach.

But the impatient king, unmoved by what to everyone else seemed a curse, used the interdict as an opportunity to seize the property of the wealthy abbeys and bishoprics. When in 1209 the pope went further and excommunicated the king himself, John appropriated the lands of England’s archbishoprics. With the income from these estates the king raised large armies of mercenaries and settled any quarrels he had with the Scots, Welsh and Irish to his satisfaction. He made Llywelyn Prince of Gwynedd submit to him; then, crossing to Ireland, he divided the east into counties on English lines and reduced their barons to order.

John had not understood quite what a formidable enemy he had made. In 1212, incensed by the King of England’s behaviour, Pope Innocent decided to use the final and most potent weapon in his repertoire. For some time the Curia at Rome had claimed that, if a ruler of a Christian country failed to obey the pope, the rest of the princes of Christendom might depose him. Innocent now issued the threat of deposition against John and entrusted the mission to his greatest ally, King Philip Augustus. It was a task the French king was more than happy to take on.

At the news that Philip was preparing an invasion, King John performed a remarkable about-turn. He could not run the risk of an invasion which might lose him the throne: he was unpopular among ordinary people because of the interdict and the English barons were discontented after the loss of their Norman lands. Though the king sent messages to the pope that he would accept his nominee Stephen Langton as archbishop, with Philip Augustus’ forces at his back, Innocent could make the King of England accept sterner terms. Not only was Stephen Langton to be Archbishop of Canterbury, but all the priests John had expelled because they had obeyed the interdict and refused to say Mass should be allowed to return to England. Most important of all, John was to yield up the crown of England into the hands of the papal legate, Pandulf. In return for swearing to be the pope’s vassal he would receive the crown back but would rule England as a fief of the papacy. England was to pay a thousand marks a year to Rome for this privilege.

John agreed to all this. At least it meant that England was free from the threat of invasion. John had not given up all thought of wresting back his old patrimony of Anjou as well as Poitou. With his nephew the new Holy Roman Emperor Otto, who had himself been deposed by the pope, he continued with a confederacy of northern European princes to attack the French king. But the attempt foundered on John’s military irresolution or, as it seemed at the time, his cowardliness. He retreated south from a battle for Anjou with Philip’s son Louis that he might have won, while the confederacy’s armies with an English contingent were heavily defeated by Philip himself, at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.

The Battle of Bouvines was final confirmation that the Angevin Empire was lost forever to England: henceforth the French monarchy would become one of the four great powers of western Europe. It also marked a turning point in John’s domestic fortunes. Humiliated once again, he now had to return home and face the demands of the baronage and the Church. In his absence abroad they had united under the inspiring leadership of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. At his suggestion, they insisted that John issue a new charter of the laws of England like that of Henry I to restore confidence in the increasingly tyrannical crown. When the king refused, the barons mustered for war–with Langton’s active support.

Two thousand of them, and the soldiers and knights holding land from them, gathered at Stamford in Lincolnshire and began moving south. The vast array of armed men and horses was composed of all the groups in England which previously had had nothing in common–the northern and southern barons, the marcher lords, the civil service or official nobility created by Henry II and the tenants-in-chief. Once London had been captured by the rebels, John realized that he would have to give in to their demands in order to fight another day. On 15 June 1215 on the long, low plain of Runnymede near Windsor, on an island in the middle of the Thames, King John reluctantly fixed his seal to the remarkable document known to history as Magna Carta, or the Great Charter.

In many ways Magna Carta is a document of its time. It was a restatement of the existing rights and laws which the English had enjoyed since charters issued under Henry I and II, but it also reflected the grievances of the barons and the erosion of their rights under the Angevin kings. Magna Carta contained their demands for a greater share of power. At the same time, it contained many clauses which have a timeless appeal. Addressed ‘to all freemen of the realm and their heirs for ever’, it may be seen as a document addressed to all classes. As such, it is generally considered to represent the beginning of English liberties.

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Superb administrators though the Norman and Angevin kings were, and though they had made England part of a progressive European civilization, they had ruled as despots. Magna Carta changed all that. It legally limited the power of the king, forbidding him to ignore the law and authorizing a council of twenty-five barons to enforce it by all possible means, including imprisonment, if he did try to overrule it.

The leaders of the rebellion arranged that a copy of Magna Carta should be read by the sheriff to a public meeting in each county in England. Every important church and town in the kingdom was to have a copy, so that everybody could know what their rights were and what they should take for granted. Over the next eight centuries the rights proclaimed by Magna Carta powerfully informed not only England’s national consciousness but many cultures influenced by Britain and British emigrants, including those of the United States, India and Australia. Magna Carta has been one of England’s greatest contributions to political thought, an early expression of the democratic ideal that the rule of law ensures rights for everyone by virtue of their humanity and regardless of their wealth or poverty.

Among its many clauses, the charter guaranteed the rights and liberties of the English Church, not only to prevent future quarrels over the appointment of the head of the Church but also to allow chapters in cathedrals to elect their bishops. The rules of inheritance were emphasized, to stop John from ignoring them as was his wont; the procedure for collecting scutage was laid down; the urgent early-thirteenth-century problem of the indebtedness of the knightly class to Christian and Jewish moneylenders was ameliorated; and certain weights and measures were standardized.

The barons made no attempt to limit the jurisdiction of the king’s courts, though they had curtailed some of their own. The Great Charter also enunciated some fundamental principles of justice which have echoed down the centuries, like Clause 40, ‘to no one will we sell, deny or defer, right or justice’. But it also expressed the reverence for the rule of law which was the spirit of the age. Clause 39 guaranteed for the first time in English history that no freeman could be imprisoned, deprived of his property, outlawed or molested without a trial according to the law of the land in which he must be judged by his peers. Most importantly for future generations, the king was prevented from raising new taxes on the people without the permission of the council of barons.

But, though John sealed Magna Carta, slippery as ever he had no intention of holding to it. The war between king and barons began again when he fled to the Isle of Wight. From there he appealed for help to his liege lord the pope, having further ingratiated himself with him by hastily taking the Crusader oath. He begged him to free him from Magna Carta, which he said insulted the crown and therefore the Holy See. Nothing loath, Innocent III declared the Great Charter illegal, and suspended the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton for refusing to excommunicate the English bishops and barons who had produced it.

With an army of foreign mercenaries John escaped from the Isle of Wight, made his way through England and marched into Scotland to attack King Alexander I, who had supported the rebels. Behind him he left a large number of foreign troops to harry the barons’ estates; this they did so successfully that the barons decided to ask Philip Augustus for help and to offer his son the crown of England. Speciously asserting that John’s murder of his nephew Arthur of Brittany required that he be deprived of the English crown, Philip’s son Louis invaded England–claiming the throne in the name of his wife Blanche of Castile, Henry II’s granddaughter and John’s niece. In November 1215 some 7,000 Frenchmen sailed up the Thames to support the barons and citizens of London.

The real possibility that England would undergo a new French conquest was averted by the death of the already unwell king. Having led an expedition north to capture the important city of Lincoln, in October 1216 John passed away at Newark in Nottinghamshire after a gastric upset caused by a supper of peaches and new cider. Though his heir Henry III was only nine years old, he had the advantage of youth and innocence to make him a rallying point for national enthusiasm and he was endorsed by the papal legate, Guala. To nobles like William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and Hubert de Burgh, he was the acceptable face of Plantagenet legitimacy. With the support of the Church, they would rule in his name for eleven years.

Henceforth until the end of the fourteenth century when a new dynasty seized the throne, the kings of England were known by a different name. They could not be called Angevins, since they no longer held the land in France which entitled them to. Instead, because the family badge of the Angevin counts was the yellow broom called in Frenchplante genêt(genista to us today) they became known as the Plantagenet kings.

John was and remains England’s most unpopular king. Despite his competence he had the reputation for being both cruel and unlucky. Not only did he lose Normandy, so earning again the title Jean Sans Terre which his father had affectionately given him, or John Lackland as later generations called him when English became the spoken language instead of French. He is also said to have lost the crown jewels of England when, in October 1216 shortly before he died, his baggage train was sucked down in a whirlpool formed by the incoming tide as it crossed the channel of the Welland. At a point still known as King’s Corner between Cross Keys Wash and Lynn, as the king supposedly watched from the northern shore, half his army disappeared beneath the waters of the Wash and the crown of England was never seen again. This episode would enable many schoolchildren to joke that John had lost the crown of England in the Wash.

PLANTAGENET Henry III (1216–1272) 

Henry III succeeded to the throne as a small boy. Despite his immensely long reign there always remained something weak and childlike about his personality. He had a reputation for ‘simplicity’. This was not a compliment in the context of a king required to rule over strong and turbulent barons already used to a limited monarchy and to getting their own way. The abiding passions of Henry’s life were his religious faith, which often caused him to neglect regal duties, and his devotion to his greedy French and Italian relations. Their demands for office, which his father John had always happily complied with, meant that a constant theme in England during his fifty-six-year reign was a hatred of foreigners. Henry was thus a poor head of state. On the other hand his strong aesthetic sense did much to advance the arts in England. The country’s churches benefited from being adorned by the skilled continental craftsmen he so admired, but his greatest monument is Westminster Abbey, the rebuilding of which in the English Gothic style over twenty years was a passionate personal project. Ultimately, however, one of the most significant developments of his reign was that in 1265 the first prototype of the House of Commons was convened.

William Marshall, the elderly Earl of Pembroke, who had been a wise counsellor to Henry’s grandfather Henry II, became regent, and his pragmatic actions did much to restore the royal fortunes. He remained alive long enough to ensure that Louis and his French armies were expelled from England and that his youthful charge was backed by the papacy. Then, to end the civil war and secure the barons’ allegiance, he cleverly reissued Magna Carta on behalf of the boy king. But, although the French threat to the throne had evaporated, the next ten years were turbulent ones resembling the anarchy under Stephen. When William Marshall died, his place as chief adviser to the young king was taken by Hubert de Burgh. De Burgh’s time was soon occupied ridding England of John’s foreign favourites, noblemen who had been granted enormous amounts of English land as a reward for helping John but were now riding roughshod over English customs, imprisoning judges and ignoring the law. De Burgh besieged many of the foreigners’ illegal castles and chased most of them out of the country.

But in 1227 the situation changed for the worse when the pope declared that Henry III’s minority was at an end and that he was of an age to rule. Henry turned away from de Burgh and restored to power, as justiciar, one of John’s most grasping ministers, Peter des Roches, who had been both chancellor and Bishop of Winchester. Henry continued blithely to hand out land and offices in unprecedented quantities: Peter des Roches’ nephew, for example, became sheriff for no fewer than ten counties: York, Berkshire, Gloucester, Somerset, Northumberland, Devon, Lancashire, Essex, Hampshire and Norfolk. In 1233 the English lost their patience. William Marshall’s son Richard tried to force the king to dismiss Peter des Roches. Civil war followed. Though Richard Marshall was treacherously slain when the bishops threatened to excommunicate the king if he did not remove des Roches, Henry eventually gave way. In 1234 he dismissed des Roches and his Poitevin supporters and restored Hubert de Burgh to his estates.

But the king did not learn from these encounters. Though he was far more English in his tastes than any of his line and named his children after English saints, he soon brought a whole new set of foreigners to power when in 1236 he married Eleanor of Provence and adopted her Savoyard relations as his own. Under their influence he attempted to rule without any kind of council of English barons. The country was also plagued by interference from the papacy. Previously, under more resolute kings, the increased assertion of papal power had been resisted. To Henry III, surrounded as he was by French and Italian advisers, there seemed little wrong in allowing the pope to supersede ancient electoral rights and remove incumbents from their positions.

As a result a great number of French and Italian priests became absentee bishops and abbots, taking very little interest in their parishioners. The queen’s uncle, the Savoyard Boniface, became a loathed Archbishop of Canterbury on the death of the saintly Edmund Rich in 1240 but hardly bothered to visit England. The unpopularity of these foreigners was not helped by a massive hike in taxation ordered by Pope Gregory IX to pay for his war against the emperor Frederick II, which Henry’s religious nature impelled him to obey. The only important figure in the English Church who had the courage to protest was Robert Grossteste, the Bishop of Lincoln. But a single voice had no impact.

Despite or perhaps because of the influence of so many foreigners, a new sense of Englishness had been growing in the country. The several reissues of Magna Carta in every shire town helped convey to English people some idea of their rights. The new orders of mendicant or begging friars were another unifying development, acting in effect like newspapers carrying news of the latest events from town to town and enabling those living in isolated villages and hamlets to feel part of the whole. The mendicant friars were travelling brothers, usually Dominicans and Franciscans, who breathed a new ardour for truth into the Church by the sermons they preached at market crosses in the open air. Unconnected to vested interests, they had more critical minds than the regular clergy.

The sense of nationhood was further encouraged by the burst of intellectual energy at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. There intelligent youths from every region were able to exchange ideas and learn from outstanding lecturers such as Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (who arrived in Oxford around 1230 and set up the Franciscans there) and his fellow Franciscan Roger Bacon. The towns too were now flourishing. A highly profitable trade in raw wool flowed between England and Flanders, from where it was dispersed to continental weaving towns to become cloth. And there had been a resurgence of writing in English: the song ‘Sumer is icumen in’ dates from this period, written in the language known as Middle English.

Yet in the hands of careless foreigners the efficient government of England was decaying. The Welsh princes once again began to expand south under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. Hitherto English kings had been able to rely on income from crown lands, but Richard I and Henry’s father John had sold so much that there was little left. The crown was so bankrupt that a number of the king’s servants were even convicted of highway robbery because he had not paid their salaries. Bad feeling against the king was becoming universal.

The discontent was fanned by a last attempt to get back the Angevin Empire. Henry III was an exceptionally devoted son. On John’s death his mother Isabella of Angoulême had married the son of John’s Poitevin enemy Hugh de Lusignan. By 1242 under the French king Louis IX the kingdom of France was continuing to expand dramatically at the expense of the traditional rights of the Poitevin barons. In response to the pleas of his mother and stepfather, Henry took an English army to invade Poitou. He was defeated so conclusively at the Battle of Taillebourg that by the next generation Poitou was directly ruled by the King of France. In 1259 by the Treaty of Paris the king accepted what had been fact since 1214, that only the Gascon region of Aquitaine remained to England. With this defeat yet another wave of foreigners, more of Henry III’s numerous half-brothers and sisters, arrived in England. They too had to be accommodated like the Savoyards, with offices and bishoprics.

When Henry III took it upon himself, as a good son of the Church, to pay for the papal wars against the emperor, the country bent under new taxes. Although Frederick II was dead, the papacy was still determined to break up his empire. In return for English money, Henry’s second son Edmund had been promised the kingdom of Sicily, while Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall was elected King of the Romans with papal support in 1257. The price tag for these grandiose plans was an enormous £135,000, which Henry had no hope of paying without raising fresh taxes. And by virtue of Magna Carta he could not raise those taxes without obtaining the permission of the Great Council of twenty-five barons. In 1258 he was duly forced to call a meeting of the Council.

The king’s perpetually impoverished state meant he called the Great Council together on a regular basis to borrow from it. As these meetings became more frequent it began to be so much the custom for barons to have their say in the affairs of the realm that the Council began to be referred to as a Parliament (from the Frenchparler, to talk). By the 1250s the barons were quite clear on their objectives. The closed court circle prevented them obtaining any influence. If the king wished to raise more taxes he must reconfirm the Charters and restore the offices of justiciar, chancellor and treasurer which Henry had done without since 1244.

Thus it was that early in 1258, when the king asked for that £135,000 to meet the cost of the pope’s Crusade, the barons and knights rebelled. At the Great Council or Parliament at Westminster they declared that no more cash would be forthcoming from them until the government of England was reformed.

The leader of the revolt was a baron named Simon de Montfort, a Frenchman who had inherited the earldom of Leicester through his mother. De Montfort had begun his life in England as one of the unpopular foreign favourites, and had at first risen high because he was married to Henry III’s sister. A fierce and passionate character, in 1248 de Montfort had been entrusted with restoring order to the last remnant of the Angevin Empire in mainland France, the southernmost county of Gascony, where he was made seneschal or governor. He was the son of the Simon de Montfort who had terrorized the Albigensian heretics in that region of France a generation earlier, and he used the same strong-armed techniques to subdue the independently minded towns and tempestuous nobles. But success was achieved at a price. The weak-minded king grew alarmed at the Gascon complaints about the severity of de Montfort’s methods and began to take their side. The bitter and disillusioned Simon de Montfort rapidly became a rallying point for opposition to the king.

In June 1258 a second Parliament met at Oxford, with the barons ready for war should Henry III not accede to their demands. Although the king and his cronies dubbed it the Mad Parliament, the Parliament’s demands were coolly rational. There was to be a new agreement to supplement the conditions laid down in the Great Charter. Known as the Provisions of Oxford this stipulated that an inner circle or Council of Fifteen was to be chosen by Henry and the barons to administer the country with the king.

The Provisions of Oxford represented a further advance in limiting the royal powers. Their revolt was justified to de Montfort and others by the longstanding Judaeo-Christian doctrine of the righteousness of resisting tyrants, and the concept of the commonweal or good of the community. The Fifteen forced the king to expel all the foreigners (including the king’s Poitevin half-brothers) from their official positions, appoint Englishmen as ministers and put an end to his expensive foreign adventures.

The rule of the Fifteen nominally lasted from 1259 to 1263. Jealousies among the barons saw it degenerate into a battle for leadership between de Montfort and Richard of Gloucester and resulted in what are known as the Barons’ Wars. Soon the Lord Edward, Henry III’s decisive eldest son, the future King Edward I, was intriguing to create a royalist faction within the Fifteen, where his chief accomplice was the Earl of Gloucester. With their backing Henry revoked the Provisions of Oxford, had the pope annul his obligations and went to war. But both sides were so evenly matched that the French king Louis IX was appealed to for judgement. The Mise of Amiens of 1264 was the result, which denounced the Provisions of Oxford as illegal.

But Simon de Montfort and his supporters would not abide by the Mise of Amiens and were determined to continue the war. At Lewes in Sussex on 14 May 1264 the decisive battle of the campaign was fought. Earl Simon, who was a brilliant general, captured both the king and his heir, and by a treaty called the Mise of Lewes the king’s power was handed over to a committee of nine. In reality England was ruled by the great earl. However, the royalist opposition had not completely given up. With the Welsh marcher lords gathering for the king, and the queen raising a force on the French coast among her relations, Simon de Montfort saw that he had to act swiftly to get the whole of the country behind him. He therefore summoned in 1265 what is–misleadingly–known as the first English Parliament.

Unlike the earlier Parliaments, that of 1265 was not just a council of barons, but something which approximated more closely to the modern Houses of Parliament. A precursor of the Commons was convoked to discuss the government of the country with the barons and bishops (the Lords). Not only was every shire to elect two knights to give their views at the meeting, but a number of cities and boroughs in England were invited to send two representatives, who by the end of the century had become known as burgesses. The English were used to giving their views on a regular basis to the king, whether via sheriffs who reported on the results of a grand jury inquest or via merchants when the king wished to borrow money. But these were informal gatherings. The Parliament of 1265 was the first time in English history that all the estates of the realm met in the same place. But they did not merely give their assent to taxes. During their meeting all present contributed their views on matters of public policy. This would rapidly become a valued tradition.

A year later Simon de Montfort’s rule came to an end. In the course of a de Montfort-led expedition to put down a royalist insurrection among the Welsh marcher lords on behalf of the captive Lord Edward, the king’s son managed to escape. Many barons now joined their soldiers to those of the Welsh marchers and swung to the side of Henry III. De Montfort was forced to recross the Severn and, on a blisteringly hot day in August 1265, face Edward and the marcher lords at the Battle of Evesham. Edward, who was soon to be famous as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’, outgeneralled de Montfort by surrounding him on all sides. As he surveyed the scene and saw that death was near, Simon said half admiringly, ‘By the arm of St James they come on cunningly; God have mercy on our souls, for our bodies are the Lord Edward’s!’

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That was certainly true for Simon de Montfort, as his body was disembowelled and his head stuck on a pike before the Tower of London. Nevertheless his ideas lived on. The Lord Edward would himself adopt many notions of government that he had learned from Earl Simon. Though Henry III remained king until 1272, real power was now in the hands of his accomplished son.

By 1267 Edward had unified the country by pardoning most of the rebels by an agreement called the Dictum of Kenilworth. Large fines restored them to their confiscated estates. Under the Treaty of Shrewsbury, the new power in Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, who had allied himself to Simon de Montfort, was apparently bound to the new regime, entitled to call himself prince of all the country of Wales and head or overlord of the Welsh magnates. England, which had had rebels in every shire, was now so peaceful that the Lord Edward was able to depart for the Fourth Crusade for four years. On word of his father’s death in 1272 he made a very leisurely return. Appointing regents, Edward I did not reappear in England until 1274, evidently having no fear of further revolts.

Edward I (1272–1307) 

Edward I was thirty-three years old when he succeeded to the throne. He is known as Edward I because he was the first Plantagenet king with that name though there had been two Anglo-Saxon predecessors, Edward the Elder and Edward the Confessor. He was nicknamed Longshanks for his great height, a feature which helped save him from being wounded in battle because his long arms gave him an advantage with a lance and opponents could never get near enough. He was a brilliant soldier, the man who finally broke the power of the Welsh rulers–which no one, not even the Romans, the world’s finest soldiers, had succeeded in doing before. Holding the country down by a ring of famous castles which still stand today, he brought Wales permanently under English rule. In place of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd he made his eldest son the Prince of Wales. On his large but austere tomb of Purbeck marble in Westminster Abbey, itself a reflection of his stern personality, an unknown fourteenth-century hand scrawled the words ‘malleus Scotorum’, the Hammer of the Scots. But though Edward I hammered Scotland he never completely conquered her, and died within sight of that independent land.

The new king was named Edward because Henry III so greatly admired Edward the Confessor. Yet no one could have been less like that mild saint. Edward I more closely resembled his forbidding and decisive ancestor William the Conqueror. His experiences during his father’s reign and in the course of what was in effect an apprenticeship in politics under Simon de Montfort had convinced him that the great earl’s broad-based Parliament was the best way of uniting the country. The immediate challenge of Edward’s reign came from Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, whom it took two Welsh campaigns to destroy. But the king’s energies were chiefly bent on a series of legal reforms designed to put the royal government on a firm footing after the anarchy of the previous seventy-five years, and above all to limit the power of the magnates.

Edward I was inspired by a chivalric ideal of good kingship which had come to dominate the mindset of the age through the courtly romances of the previous century. He took a keen interest in King Arthur, whose supposed bones were reburied in a special ceremony performed before him and his queen at Glastonbury Abbey and he was famous for his Round Table banquets. The legendary devotion that existed between him and his wife Eleanor of Castile in an age when many marriages were dynastic affairs reveals a man of strong feelings. She accompanied him on most of his military campaigns, even attending him on his Crusade to the Holy Land in 1270. The legend that she saved the life of Edward there when he was wounded probably indicates that she had brought with her from her native Castile some of the superior medical knowledge of its Arab doctors. When Queen Eleanor died at Harby in Nottinghamshire in 1290, most unusually her distraught widower followed her cortège all the way to Westminster Abbey. He erected the celebrated series of Eleanor Crosses–twelve in all–to mark the places where her body rested as it was carried south. Some of them are still standing, though the best known, which gave Charing Cross its name, is a copy.

But Edward I was not just a romantic warrior, he was also immensely practical. He drew up new laws to encourage foreign merchants and reformed the coinage. He had a political motive here too, because he understood that if he promoted the mercantile interest or trade it would balance the power of the barons. Visiting his French territories on the way back from the Crusades, he was struck by the lawlessness of Guienne in Gascony. He therefore made it a policy to found new towns namedbastidesto encourage the growth of a law-abiding middle-class population of merchants and lawyers. No less practically, one of his first actions was to make sure the crown profited from England’s growing wool trade, which had hugely expanded thanks to the Cistercian monks’ pioneering work clearing forests to breed sheep. In 1275 he instituted a royal tax on every sack of wool, sheepskin and leather exported to northern Europe.

Under Edward I, more than ever the area round the Tower of London became the seat of government. He moved the mint there from Westminster and built the medieval palace we know today next to the White Tower. The plainness of his quarters, with the little chapel off his bedroom, at a time when the English decorative arts were at their richest suggests the hard purposefulness and lack of frivolity in his character which contrast so dramatically with his father’s sensuous and artistic nature.

In 1274, the year of his coronation on his return from the Holy Land, Edward relaunched throughout the country that old Norman administrative tool, the inquest. Owing to the careless nature of his father’s administration many of the baronial courts had taken over the jurisdiction and rights of the royal courts to the detriment of the king’s power. Undertaking an investigation known asQuo warranto(Latin for ‘by what right’) royal commissioners travelled throughout the country inquiring into what rights each baron claimed for himself and whether they were justified. This could mainly be achieved through the production of a charter or piece of parchment sealed with the king’s Great Seal, though in some places of course the right to hold a court stretched back to Anglo-Saxon times and was treated as being based on immemorial custom.

The First Statute of Westminster of 1275 summarized the results of this inquiry, while the Statute of Gloucester in 1278 curtailed many former baronial jurisdictions and replaced them with royal courts. The Third Statute of Westminster, generally known asQuia emptores, further weakened the power of the feudal party by allowing the sale of land without feudal obligation to the seller. Instead the buyer became the vassal of the seller’s own lord–frequently the crown. The responsibility of the hundreds in England to prevent crime within their boundaries was reinforced by the Second Statute of Westminster, which also set down new arrangements for managing the fyrd–from now on to be known as the militia.

Edward I also attempted to check the authority of the Church. He put an end to the annual payment to the pope established by John as Rome’s vassal, and laid down that the Church courts should never encroach on the jurisdiction of the common law. By the Statute of Mortmain of 1279 (from the Latin for dead hand,mortua manu) men and women were prevented from leaving their property to the Church without the crown’s leave. All these measures made Edward I richer than his father had been and enabled him to do without the wealth of the Jewish community. Edward’s passionately Christian religious convictions stimulated an anti-Semitic streak in him. Objecting to the high rates of interest the Jewish community charged for loans and accusing them of using foreign coins instead of the sterling he insisted upon, in 1290 he expelled the Jews from England. They did not return for three and a half centuries, when Oliver Cromwell asked them back.

In another display of force, complaints about the judiciary persuaded the king to have every one of the royal judges tried in 1289. All but four were dismissed from office. From 1292 advocacy was put on a more professional basis with the introduction of a rule that only lawyers trained by judges could appear in the royal courts. And the Inns of Court, which all barristers must belong to, date from this era as centres of legal education.

But the wars against Wales and Scotland were the dominating feature of Edward’s reign. His campaign against the Welsh under Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd began as early as 1277. Prince Llywelyn had used the Treaty of Shrewsbury as an opportunity to enhance his powers. His aim was to overrun the lands of the English marcher lords and double the size of his dominion. When Edward heard that Llywelyn, who was engaged to Simon de Montfort’s daughter Eleanor, was claiming to be the spiritual heir of the great rebel, he marched an army into north Wales. By the Treaty of Conway Llywelyn lost the overlordship of Wales and was reduced to being a petty prince once more. Most of his territory was put under English law with no regard for Welsh custom.

Oppressing the Welsh population, with English soldiers placed in every district, soon provoked another rebellion, led by Llywelyn and his brother Dafydd. Once again Edward led an army into north Wales and blockaded Prince Llywelyn in Snowdonia. But Llywelyn managed to flee through the English lines and escape to the upper Wye. There Prince Llywelyn made his last stand with the support of many of the ordinary people of the marches. But on 11 December he was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge.

This time Edward was less merciful in his dealings. Llywelyn’s head was cut from his body, mounted on a pike and crowned with willow in cruel mockery of the way the Welsh used to crown their kings. In the tradition of the age it was left rotting outside the Tower of London as a warning. Though Prince Dafydd held out for a year longer, hidden in the woods and secret valleys around his home, by 1283 he too had been executed at Shrewsbury.

North Wales was organized along the lines of English local government. The Marcher lands remained semi-independent feudal fiefdoms until the sixteenth century, but most of Wales, particularly the north and coastal regions, was reorganized on the English model. It was divided into six counties (Anglesey, Carmarthen, Caernarvon, Merioneth and Cardigan, the sixth being invented by Edward I and named Flintshire), each with its own sheriffs. The country was fenced off by a series of impregnable white castles, among them Caernarvon, Conway and Harlech. Edward’s surviving eldest son, the future Edward II, was born at Caernarvon Castle in 1284. Legend has it that Edward shouted to the crowds assembled below, ‘I will give you a prince who speaks no English,’ and produced the newborn babe at the window. From 1301 the title Prince of Wales has always been given to the eldest son of the English monarch.

The conquest of Scotland, though achieved more rapidly than that of Wales, would in fact be a short-lived affair. By the end of the thirteenth century Scotland was a large, unified area ruled by one king and running from the Highlands in the north, which were populated by Celtic tribes who had intermarried with Norman settlers, down to the River Tweed in the south. In the south west the kingdom reached down from Galloway to the old Welsh kingdom of what is today known as Cumbria or the Lake District. So extensive a territory might prove a haven for enemies of England. On any reading, statecraft suggested that it might be better under English control.

The English and Scots had lived in peace for more than a hundred years since the Treaty of Falaise in 1174. But in 1286 the situation became far more volatile: King Alexander III, the last in the line of old Scottish kings, whom tragedy had deprived of his two male heirs within two years of one another, died unexpectedly. This left his seven-year-old granddaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, the only heir to the throne. But when she too died four years later, there was then no obvious heir. No fewer than thirteen claimants to the Scottish throne registered their claim. The most important were John Balliol and Robert Bruce, who were both descended in the female line. Their claims were sufficiently contentious for there to be a very real possibility of civil war. The Scottish magnates, many of whom held land in England, decided that Edward I was best placed to name the new king. But Edward would do so only at a price. Ever since Richard the Lionheart had commuted the Treaty of Falaise for money, so that the Scottish king only did homage to the English for his lands in England, the notion of the English king as overlord of the Scots had fallen away. Edward I agreed to judge the contest on condition that all the Scottish nobility and the claimants themselves first performed an act of homage to him as overlord of Scotland.

The chief claimants and the magnates were so anxious to secure Edward’s support that they agreed. Assisted by 104 judges, Edward tried the suit for the succession to the Scottish throne. After much deliberation the crown was finally granted in 1292 to John Balliol, who was proclaimed king at Berwick-on-Tweed, then a Scottish town. Almost immediately, however, this apparent solution was thrown into doubt when war broke out once again between France and England over the English possessions on the Continent. Edward I led an English army to Gascony to defend it against the French king Philip IV, while Philip used his agents to stir up rebellion against his English enemy in Wales and Scotland. Although the Welsh rebellion was quickly put down, the Scots threat was far more powerful. From 1293 dates the series of diplomatic treaties and close links between Scotland and France against their mutual enemy England which is known as the Auld Alliance.

A certain amount of antagonism towards Edward I had already been aroused among the Scots barons. Legal appeals by ordinary Scotsmen from the local feudal courts to the royal courts of England were becoming common, partly because of the reputation for fairer, more professional justice in England. But the Scots were also angry at being asked to form part of the English feudal levy against the French army in Gascony. John Balliol was despised as a poor leader of men who was too much in the English king’s pocket. He was now more or less supplanted as ruler of Scotland by a committee of twelve nobles similar to the Council of Fifteen which had ruled England for Henry III.

Threatened on all his borders, Edward I followed Earl Simon’s example before him. By summoning in 1295 what is known as the Model Parliament he involved the whole English nation in the looming crisis and ratcheted the political organization of the country up another level. The Great Charter had limited the powers of the king by law. But Edward went a step further and stressed that in England the king’s government was by the assent of the governed. The writ requesting the attendance of two elected representatives from each shire, and from cities and boroughs to join with the barons and bishops includes the celebrated phrase: ‘What touches all should be approved of all.’ The document went on, ‘It is also very clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common.’

Edward had been used to calling upon Parliament since the beginning of his reign. But this was the first time he accepted that, in return for voting new taxes for the war, he should allow the nation to enter into the councils of state. With the large sums of money voted him by the Model Parliament in 1296 he embarked on bringing Scotland to heel. Faced with Edward’s huge invading army John Balliol gave up the crown of Scotland, Edward pronounced himself king, and the country was divided among his lieutenants on English county lines. To mark the change of rule, the great Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny, where Scottish kings since the sixth century had been enthroned, was carted south to lie beneath the English king’s throne in Westminster Abbey. There it remained until 1999, when in honour of the new Scottish Assembly, it came home after 700 years.

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