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Part V - Medieval Britain
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Part V - Medieval Britain

Page 2 of 14


The only standing army in England had been defeated in an-all day battle in which the outcome was in doubt until the undisciplined English had broken ranks to pursue the Normans' feigning retreat. The story is too well-known to be repeated here, but when William took his army to London, where young Edgar the Atheling had been proclaimed king in Harold's place, English indecision in gathering together a formidable opposition forced the supporters of Edgar to negotiate for peace. They had no choice. William was duly crowned King of England at Westminster on Christmas Day, 1066.

Had Harold Hardrada won at Stamford Bridge, England would surely have become part of the Scandinavian Empire with all its attendant problems. Had Harold of Wessex won at Hastings, and it was touch and go all day, then the future course of England would have been certainly different. We can only guess at further isolation from the Continent and the making of a truly island nation at this very early date. We do know that William of Normandy won and changed the face of the nation forever. Not only was the land now governed by a foreign king and subjected to a foreign aristocracy, for the next four hundred years it wasted its resources and manpower on futile attempts to keep its French interests alive while, at the same time, becoming part of (and contributing to) the spectacular flowering of European culture.

The Conquest meant a new dynasty for England and a new aristocracy. It brought feudalism and it introduced changes in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, with the attendant change in the relations of Church and State. In the early part of the 11th century, mainly under the Cluniac Order, there had been a tremendous monastic revival in the Dukedom of Normandy. This came about as a result of close cooperation between King and Church in what was basically a feudal society, and one which was transferred to England in 1066 lock, stock and barrel.

William's victory also linked England with France and not Scandinavia from now on. Within six months of his coronation, William felt secure enough to visit Normandy. The sporadic outbreaks at rebellion against his rule had one important repercussion, however: it meant that threats to his security prevented him from undertaking any attempt to cooperate with the native aristocracy in the administration of England.

A rising at York in which the Danes also took part was easily crushed and the land harried unmercifully in revenge. Duke William showed that he meant business; he ruled with ruthless severity. On his absences in Normandy, he left strong, able barons to deal with any rebellions, including powerful church leaders such as Lanfranc of Canterbury. Through attrition, in the futile attempts at resistance, the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was severely depleted. The years 1066-1075 were a period of trial and experiment, with serious attempts at cooperation between Saxon and Norman, but these attempts were entirely given up in favor of a thoroughly Norman administration. By 1075, the only Anglo-Saxons to remain in authority were Ecclesiastes. By 1086, other than small-estate holders, there were in the whole of the land only two Englishmen holding estates of any dimension.

By the time of William's death in 1087, English society had been profoundly changed. For one thing, the great Saxon earldoms were split: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and other ancient kingdoms were abolished forever. The great estates of England were given to Norman and Breton landowners, carefully prevented from building up their estates by having them separated by the holdings of others. In addition, William's insistence that the prime duty of any man holding land from the king was to produce on demand a set quota of mounted knights produced a new ruling class in England, one entirely different from that which had been in place for so long.

This was not the Saxon way of doing things: it constituted a total revolution. The simple rents of ale and barley or work upon the lord's manor were now supplemented by military service of a new kind: one that had been practiced only by and thus familiar to a Norman. In such a system, those at the bottom suffered most, losing all their rights as free men and coming to be regarded as mere property, assets belonging to the manor. In all intents and purposes, they were no more than slaves. In addition, further restrictions and hardship came from William's New Forest laws and his vast extension of new royal forests in which all hunting rights belonged to the king. The peasantry was thus deprived of a valuable food source in times of bad harvests. The most emphatic proof that the old freedoms were gone was the remarkable survey of England known as the "Domesday Book."

Begun in 1080, the unique "Domesday Book" (the book of unalterable judgments), was an attempt to provide the king with every penny to which he was legally entitled. It worked only too well, reckoning the wealth of England "down to the last pig." To determine how the country was occupied and with what sort of people, William sent his men into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, what land and cattle the king should have in the country, and what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire.

William was also determined to find out how much land was owned by the archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls. "So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed... one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards." The book names some 13,000 places, many for the first time. A veritable Who's Who of the century, the "Domesday Book" is a remarkable accomplishment indeed, packed with exhaustive detail on every holding in the entire country and its value.

We have briefly noted the efforts to reorganize the Church in Normandy even before the Conquest of England. William had presented his invasion to the Pope as a minor crusade in which the "corrupt" Saxon Church in England would be reformed. Lanfranc was chosen as the instrument of reform, an exceptional man whose work was profound As Archbishop of Canterbury, he infused new life into the Church made moribund under such as Stigand (deposed by William), giving it a tighter organization and discipline.

Lanfranc had been Abbot of Cannes; he was a distinguished scholar and an expert on civil law. He had been prominent in the negotiations leading to William's marriage with the daughter of the Duke of Flanders. A practical administrator, he and the Conqueror seemed to have a close sympathy in aims and ideals. They agreed on the nature of the reforms necessary for the Church in England, especially that the influence and intrusion of the Papacy should be resisted and that real power should lie with the metropolitan dioceses. Asserting his authority and declaring that England was not merely a papal fief, Lanfranc was supported by the king. He held synods regularly, corrected many irregularities, and righted long-standing abuses. His most persistent problem was that of clerical marriage.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the marriage of priests had been recognised. Household functions had taken priority over Church ceremony; such marriages had been defensible from folk-law, if not canon law. Lanfranc as a lawyer familiar with current canon law and Church law as practiced on the Continent, introduced many new rules into England that were copied and followed throughout the land, but they did not include marriage of clerics. One important innovation of Lanfranc was the transfer of the seats of bishops to the new, growing towns and centers of trade. The growing dispute between the powers of the ecclesiastical courts and the secular courts remained a thorn in the Archbishop's side and soon came to a head in the reign of Henry II.

Apart from the cultural and political legacy of the Norman occupation, the effects on architecture and language were also immense. The Anglo-Saxons were not noted for castle-building nor for great cathedrals and churches. Not much remains of their building. But all over the landscape, we see physical reminders of the Norman presence, not only in the military strongholds, which meant a castle in just about every town, but also in the cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries that so effectively symbolize the triumph of the new order. Everywhere in England, a frenzy of church building took place, in which the style we call "Romanesque" dominated. On the borders of Wales and Scotland, in particular, we see that combination of church and castle, abbey and town that demonstrate only too well the genius of this hardy breed of seafarers, explorers, settlers,

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