The Making Of Modern Britain

The Middle Ages

Date: 2002

The Making Of Modern Britain

Medieval Politics, Economics, Religion, And Learning


Between 1000 and 1300, drastic political, economic, and social change

occurred in Europe. Not only did trade revive, cities grow, and a new

bourgeois social class emerge, but in several regions kings enforced their

power at the expense of the nobility, and strong centralized government was

realized in several regions of Europe.

The growth of trade and commerce to national and international scale is

one of the impressive achievements of the High Middle Ages. The revitalization

of trade and commerce, coupled with a revival of urban life, helped foster the

growth of the bourgeoisie, or middle class.

Political and economic change, of course, had a direct impact on the

culture of the High Middle Ages. In these years, the Church reached the apex

of its power, and religion played a crucial role in the development and

definition of medieval intellectual life.

The Making Of Modern Britain

After the Romans withdrew from England in the fifth century, Germanic

tribes known as Anglo-Saxons invaded the island and divided it among more than

a dozen hostile tribal kingdoms. Gradually, rivalries among the kingdoms

diminshed, and the overlordship of the island was held in turn by the

different rulers. In the ninth century the kingdom of Wessex held the dominant

position. Its king, Alfred the Great (871-899), was confronted with the task

of turning back a new wave of invaders, the Danes, who overran all the other

English kingdoms. Alfred defeated the Danes and forced them into a treaty

whereby they settled in what came to be called the Danelaw and accepted


In addition to being a successful warrior, Alfred the Great made notable

contributions to the creation of a stronger nation. He reorganized the militia

of freemen (fyrd) so that some were always ready for battle while the rest

tilled the soil, and the ships he built to repel future Viking attacks won for

him the title of founder of the English navy.

Following the example of Charlemagne, Alfred also advanced the

intellectual life of his country, inviting scholars from the Continent to the

palace school he founded. He also encouraged monks to keep an account of

current affairs, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which continued to be written for

hundreds of years after his reign.

Alfred's successors were able rulers who conquered the Danelaw, the

northern portion of the island previously conquered by the Danes, and created

a unified English monarchy. Danes and Saxons intermarried, and soon most

differences between two peoples disappeared. After 975, however, the power of

the central government lagged, and with it the ability to keep order at home

and repel outside attacks. The weakness of the kingdom is well illustrated in

the reign of Ethelred the Unready (978-1016), who constantly struggled to keep

a firm hand on the great nobles and who was forced to cope with a new attack

by the Danes.

Following Ethelred's reign, the Anglo-Saxons were again overrun by the

Danes, and King Canute of Denmark ruled England as well as Norway. Canute

proved to be a wise and civilized king and was well liked by his Anglo-Saxon

subjects because he respected their rights and customs. Canute's empire fell

apart after his death in 1035, and in 1042 the English crown was secured by

Ethelred's son, Edward the Confessor. Although famous for his devotion to

religion, Edward was a weak ruler who had little control over the powerful

earls who had usurped most of the king's authority in their regions. This

decline in government was reversed after the Normans conquered the island in


William The Conqueror And The Norman Conquest

Norman influence in England really began in the reign of Edward the

Confessor. Edward had spent most of his early life in Normandy, and as king of

England he showed a strong pro-Norman bias. When Edward died without heir in

1066, the Witan - the council of the kingdom - selected Harold Godwinson, a

powerful English earl, as the new ruler. Immediately William, duke of

Normandy, claimed the English throne, basing his demand on a flimsy hereditary

right and on the assertion that Edward had promised him the crown.

An outstanding statesman and soldier, William as duke of Normandy had

subdued the rebellious nobles and established an effective centralized feudal

state. William effectively controlled his vassals, and his feudal army of a

thousand knights made him the most powerful ruler west of Germany. His

centralized authority in Normandy contrasted sharply with the situation in

England, where the powerful earls were continually challenging the king.

William and his army of five thousand men crossed the English Channel to

enforce the Norman claim to the English throne. On October 14, 1066, William's

mounted knights broke through the English infantry at Hastings. Resistance

ceased when Harold was slain. The defeat ended Anglo-Saxon rule and brought a

new pattern of government that would make England the strongest state in


William introduced the Norman system of feudalism into England. As owner

of all England by right of conquest, William retained some land as his royal

domain and granted the remainder as fiefs to royal vassals called

tenants-in-chief, among whom were bishops and abbots. In return for their

fiefs, the tenants-in-chief provided William with a number of knights to serve

in the royal army. To furnish the required service, the great vassals - most

of whom were French-speaking Normans - granted parts of the fiefs among their

own vassals. But from all the landholders in England, regardless of whether

they were his immediate vassals, William exacted homage and an oath that they

would "be faithful to him against all other men." Both the tenants-in-chief

holding fiefs directly from the king and the lesser tenants holding fiefs as

vassals of the tenants-in-chief swore this loyalty, which meant that a

disgruntled noble could not call out his own vassals against the king, because

every person owed his first allegiance to William.

The Domesday Survey, which was originally a survey for payments of money

to buy off the Danes from Anglo-Saxon territory, was retained by William and

turned into an efficient source of royal revenue. Because William, as all

medieval kings, constantly needed money, he ordered an accurate census of the

property and property holders in his realm as a basis for collecting all the

feudal aids and incidents owed to him.

In line with his policy of controlling all aspects of the government,

William revamped the old Anglo-Saxon Witan, which had elected and advised the

kings. The new Norman ruler changed its title to the Great Council - also

called curia regis, the king's council or court - and converted it into a body

composed of his tenants-in-chief. The Great Council met at least three times a

year as a court of justice for the great barons and as an advisory body in

important matters. At other times a small permanent council of barons advised

the king.

William also dominated the English church. He appointed bishops and

abbots and required them to provide military service for their lands. Although

he permitted the church to retain its courts he denied them the right to

appeal cases to the pope without his consent. Nor could the decrees of popes

and church councils circulate in England without royal approval.

William II, who succeeded his father in 1087, was an ineffective king who

inspired several baronial revolts before being shot in the back - accidently,

it was said - while hunting. Succeeding him was his brother, Henry I

(1110-1135), a more able monarch who easily put down the only baronial revolt

that challenged him.

While the Great Council, made up of the chief nobles, occasionally met to

advise the king, the small permanent council of barons grew in importance.

From it appeared specialized organs of government. The exchequer, or court of

accounts, supervised the collection of royal revenue, greatly increased with

the revival of a money economy. Notable was scutage or "shield money," a fee

the king encouraged his vassals to pay in lieu of personal military service.

The well-trained "barons of the exchequer" also sat as a special court to try

cases involving revenue.

Henry I's achievements in strengthening the monarchy were obviated by the

nineteen years of chaos that followed his death. Ignoring their promise to

recognize Henry's only surviving child, Matilda, wife of Geoffrey Plantagenet,

count of Anjou in France, many barons supported Henry's weak nephew Stephen.

During the resulting civil war the nobility became practically independent of

the crown and, secure in their strong castles, freely pillaged the land.

Henry II

Anarchy ceased with the accession of Matilda's son, Henry II (1154-1189),

the founder of the Plantagenet, or Angevin, House in England. As a result of

his inheritance (Normandy and Anjou) and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine,

the richest heiress in France, Henry's possessions stretched from Scotland to

the Pyrenees. Henry's great military skill and restless energy were important

assets to his reign. He quickly recaptured the rights and lands of his

grandfather Henry I and began rebuilding the power of the monarchy in England.

Henry's chief contribution to the development of the English monarchy was

to increase the jurisdiction of the royal courts at the expense of the feudal

courts. This produced three major results: a permanent system of circuit

courts presided over by itinerant justices, the jury system, and a body of law

common to all England.

Itinerant justices on regular circuits were sent out once each year to

enforce the "King's Peace." To make this system of royal criminal justice more

effective, Henry employed the method of inquest used by William the Conqueror

in the Domesday Survey. In each shire a body of important men were sworn

(jure) to report to the sheriff all crimes committed since the last session of

the circuit court. Thus originated the modern grand jury that presents

information for an indictment.

Henry's courts also used the jury system to settle private lawsuits.

Instead of deciding such civil cases by means of oath-helpers or lengthy trial

by ordeal, the circuit judges handed down quick decisions based upon evidence

sworn to by a jury of men selected because they were acquainted with the facts

of the case. This more efficient system caused litigants to flock to the royal

courts, a procedure facilitated by the sale of "writs," which ordered a

sheriff to bring the case to a royal court.

Henry's judicial reforms promoted the growth of the common law - one of

the most important factors in welding the English people into a nation. The

decisions of the royal justices became the basis for future decisions made in

the king's courts, superseded the many diverse systems of local justice in the

shires, and became the law common to all English people.

[See Dominions Of Henry II]

Thomas A Becket, Victim Of Church-State Rivalry

Although Henry strengthened the royal courts at the expense of the

baronial courts, he was not so successful against another rival - the church

courts. When he appointed Thomas a Becket archbishop of Canterbury, the king

assumed that his close friend and former chancellor could easily be persuaded

to cooperate, but Becket proved to be stubbornly independent and upheld the

authority of the church courts over Henry's.

In 1164 Henry stipulated that clergyman found guilty by a church court of

committing crimes, such as murder and grand larceny, were to be unfrocked and

tried by a royal court, where punishments were more severe. Henry's idea was

to prevent the abuses resulting from "benefit of clergy," the principle that

the church alone had legal jurisdiction over its clergy. Becket refused to

yield, claiming that clergymen would suffer unjust "double punishment" for a

crime by being both unfrocked by the church and punished by the state.

When Becket received no support from the English clergy, he fled to

France and appealed to the pope for aid. After a few years the pope resolved

the quarrel, and the archbishop returned to England. Becket's first act,

however was to excommunicate the bishops who, in his absence, had supported

the designation of Henry's oldest son as heir to the throne. When this news

reached Henry, in a fit of passion he roared: "What a pack of fools and

cowards I have nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of

this turbulent priest." ^1 Responding to this tirade, four knights went to

Canterbury and murdered Becket before the high altar of the cathedral.

[Footnote 1: Quoted in W. S. Churchill, The Birth of Britain, vol. 1 of A

History of English-Speaking Peoples (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1965), p.


Popular outrage over this murder destroyed Henry's chances of reducing

the power of the church courts. Becket became a national hero and, after

miracles were reported to have occurred at his tomb, was canonized a saint.

The Successors Of Henry II

Henry's promising beginning was marred by the mistakes of his successors.

Having no taste for routine tasks of government, Richard the Lion-Hearted

(1189-1199) spent only five months of his ten-year reign in Britain, which he

regarded as a source of money for his overseas adventures. Richard wasted his

country's wealth in winning a great reputation as a crusader and in fighting

the king of France. The royal bureaucracy worked so well, however, that

Richard's absence made little difference.

Richard's successor, his brother John (1199-1216), was an inept ruler who

lacked both his brother's chivalrous qualities and his father's genius. John's

cruelty and unscrupulousness cost him the support of his barons at the time he

needed them most in his struggles with the two ablest men of the age, Philip

II of France and Pope Innocent III. As feudal overlord for John's possessions

in France, Philip found an occasion to declare John an unfaithful vassal and

therefore his fiefs forfeit. John put up only feeble resistance, and after

losing more than half his possessions in France he became involved in a

struggle with Innocent III in which he was forced to make complete surrender.

In the meantime, John had completely alienated the British barons, who

rebelled and in 1215 forced John to affix his seal to Magna Carta, which bound

the king to observe all feudal rights and privileges. Although in later

centuries, people looked back on Magna Carta as one of the most important

documents in the story of political freedom, to the English of the time, Magna

Carta did not appear to introduce any new constitutional principles. It was an

agreement between barons and the king, the aristocracy and the monarchy.

The importance of Magna Carta does not lie in its original purpose but

rather in the subsequent use made of it. Two great principles were potential

in the charter: The law is above the king; and the king can be compelled by

force to obey the law of the land. This concept of the rule of law and the

limited power of the crown was to play an important role in the development of

English history.

The Origins Of Parliament

The French-speaking Normans commonly used the word Parlement (from

parler, "to speak") for the Great Council. Anglicized as Parliament, the term

was used interchangeably with Great Council and curia regis. Modern

historians, however, generally apply the term to the Great Council only after

1265, when its membership was radically enlarged.

The first meeting of Parliament, the enlarged Great Council, took place

in the midst of a baronial rebellion against Henry III (1216-1272), the son of

King John. In an effort to gain the widest possible popular support, Simon de

Montfort, the leader of the rebellion, summoned not only the barons but also

two knights from every shire and two burghers from every borough to the Great

Council in 1265.

Parliament first became truly influential during the reign of Henry III's

son, Edward I (1272-1307), one of England's most outstanding monarchs.

Beginning with the "Model Parliament" of 1295, Edward followed the pattern set

by Simon de Montfort in summoning representatives of shires and towns to

meetings of the Great Council. In calling parliaments, Edward had no idea of

making any concession to popular government.

Early in the fourteenth century the representatives of the knights and

the burghers, called the "Commons," adopted the practice of meeting separately

from the lords spiritual and temporal. Thus arose the division of Parliament

into what came to be called the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Parliament, particularly the Commons, soon discovered its power as the

major source of revenue for the king. It gradually became the custom for

Parliament to exercise this "power of the purse" by withholding its financial

grants until the king had redressed grievances, made known by petitions.

Parliament also presented petitions to the king with the request that they be

recognized as statutes, as the laws drawn up by the king and his council and

confirmed in Parliament were called. Gradually the right to initiate

legislation through petition was obtained. Again, Parliament's "power of the

purse" carried the day.

Widening The Boundaries Of The Realm

Edward I was the first English king who was determined to be master of

the whole island of Britain - Wales, Scotland, and England. In 1284, after a

five-year struggle, English law and administration were imposed on Wales. As a

concession to the Welsh, Edward gave his oldest son the title of Prince of


A dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne in the 1290s gave

Edward his opportunity to intervene in the land to the north. After calling

upon Edward to settle the dispute, the Scots accepted him as their overlord.

Then Edward unwisely demanded that the Scots furnish him with troops to fight

in England's wars. Under the courageous William Wallace, rebellion quickly

flared up. After winning several victories against the English, Wallace was

defeated and hanged as a traitor. But Scottish nationalism was not defeated.

In 1307 Edward once again invaded Scotland, but he fell ill and died before

his dreams of conquest could be realized. Edward II (1307-1327) attempted to

humble the Scots, but at the battle of Bannockburn (1314) the Scots, led by

Robert Bruce, won their independence. The two peoples remained bitter enemies,

with the Scots often joining the French in their wars against the English. Not

until 1603 were the two kingdoms united under a common monarch.

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