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Part V - Medieval Britain
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Part V - Medieval Britain

Medieval Britain                                                            page 3 of 14

administrators, law givers and builders who were never more than a tiny majority. But what they built was meant to stay.

Changes in language also became permanent. The new nobility knew no English and probably did little to learn it (in contrast to the situation on the borders of Wales where many Norman lords freely fraternized and married local inhabitants and learned the Welsh language). Though English continued to be spoken by the great majority, it was the language of the common people, not those in power, a situation that wasn't to change until the 14th century.

There was still the matter of how to deal with the Celtic kingdoms of Britain, those beyond the borders, those that were not occupied by the Saxons and where the language and customs remained more or less untouched: Scotland and Wales. William seemed to regard Scotland as an area best left alone. Though he claimed, as king of England, some degree of influence over Scotland and took control of Cumbria in 1092, he did not bother to venture further north. Wales was a different matter.

Various Welsh princes were still vying for power. The last ruler who could truly call himself King of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, was killed in 1063. The country was then rent by a series of inter-family squabbles and William seized his opportunity to establish a firm western frontier by giving away lands along the border to some of his most loyal supporters. These so-called border barons or Marcher Lords were left free to add to their territories as they wished. Their castles and fortified manors in all the important border towns attest to their power and influence. The lordships of Chester, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Glamorgan kept a tight grip on any aspirations of Welsh princes to re-assert control of their nation. Yet such was the power of the Welsh longing to be independent and so cleverly had they mastered the art of guerilla warfare from their mountain strongholds, that by the time of the death of William's son, Rufus (King from 1087-1100) that Welsh control had been re-asserted over most of Wales.

Continued Welsh efforts to drive out the Normans from their border territories was of great concern to England's rulers. In 1095, William II started sending royal armies into Wales and the practice was continued by Henry I. The great expense of such adventures meant that an easier way to keep Wales in check was to preserve the territories of the Marcher lordships, which remained in existence for over four hundred years.

In the meantime, in England, Norman Rule not only affected political and social institutions, but the English language itself. A huge body of French words were ultimately to become part of the English vocabulary, many of these continuing side by side with their English equivalent, such as "sacred" and "holy", "legal" and "lawful," "stench" and "aroma," etc. Many French words replaced English ones, so that before the end of the 14th century Chaucer was able to use a vast store of new words such as "courage" in place of "heartness," and so on. English became vastly enriched, more cosmopolitan, sharing its Teutonic and Romance traditions. Norman influence on literature was equally profound, for the developments in French literature, the leading literature of Europe, could now circulate in the English court as it did in France.

In retrospect, William's rule can be seen as harsh, but in some ways just. The king was determined to stay in firm control, and he certainly brought a new degree of political unity to England. Those huge, forbidding Norman castles which even today, in ruin, dominate the skyline of so many towns and cities had the effect of maintaining law and order. Even a Saxon scribe wrote that "a man might walk through the land unmolested," and compared to the lawlessness and abuses which were apparent in the reign of his successor William II, the Conqueror's reign was almost a golden age. Trouble came immediately upon his death.

William II, Rufus (1087-1100)
Despite the cohesion and order brought to England by the Duke of Normandy, the new administrative system outlived him by less than fifty years. Though William respected the elective nature of the English monarch, perfunctorily recognised at his own coronation, on his deathbed in Normandy he handed over the crown to William Rufus, his favorite son, and sent him to England to Archbishop Lanfranc. He reluctantly granted the Duchy of Normandy to Robert, his eldest, and bequeathed a modest sum to Henry Beauclerk, his youngest. There were bound to be problems.

The dominions ruled by William lI, Rufus, were closely knit together by the family. The King of England and the Duke of Normandy had rival claims upon the allegiance of every great land-holder from the Scottish borders to Anjou. And these great land-holders, the Barons and Earls made it their business to provoke and protract quarrels of every kind between their rulers. It was a rotten state of affairs that could only be settled through the English acquisition of Normandy. In addition, Norman lands were surrounded by enemies eager to re-conquer lost territories. One of these foes was the Church of Rome itself, rapidly increasing in power and prestige at the expense of the feudal monarchies. Both William Rufus and his successor Henry l had to deal with problems that eventually lay beyond their capabilities to solve.

The leading Barons acquiesced in the coronation of William Rufus by Lanfranc in September of 1087, taking their lead from the archbishop but also demonstrating the immense power that was accruing to the Church in England. The new king was an illiterate, avaricious, impetuous man, not the sort of ruler the country needed at this or at any other time. According to William of Malmesbury, he had already sunk below the possibility of greatness or of moral reformation. It seems that the only profession he honored was that of war; his court became a Mecca for those practiced in its arts; his retainers lived lavishly off the land and took what they wished from whom they wished. To entertain his retinue, the king had a huge banqueting hall built in Westminster.

An early rebellion was inevitable. Taking place in 1088, it was led by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, an old foe of Lanfranc, who wished to install Robert of Normandy on the throne of England. To meet the threat, Rufus called upon his English subjects. He promised them better laws than they had ever had before; the remission of all novel dues and taxes, the repeal of many aspects of the hated forest laws. He had no intention of fulfilling his promises, but with them he was able to raise an army of the people and defeat the scattered rebel forces. With the tide running against him, Duke Robert quickly lost interest in the affair. Odo's army, penned up at Rochester, petitioned for a truce and the bishop himself was forced to depart for Europe. Lanfranc's death then removed the only person strong enough to protest against Rufus for failing to live up to his promises. The king could now appoint any advisor of his own choosing and accordingly, Ranulf Flambard found himself treasurer of England.

Despite the faults of William ll, England was governed well compared to Normandy, where a constant state of anarchy prevailed and where Duke Robert was unable to control his barons who waged private wars, built castles without license and acted as petty, independent sovereigns. Rufus seized the opportunity to invade the province with a large force in 1090 to take vengeance on Robert's part in the rebellion two years earlier. He was aided by Philip of France, bribed to drop his support of Robert.

A land grab by Malcolm of Scotland in 1092 then forced Rufus back to England where he established a stronghold at Carlisle, on the Scottish border. During the following year, the Scottish king was killed at Malcolm's Cross by Earl Mowbray. Subsequent events in Scotland, in which Donaldbane allied with the Norwegians under Magnus, then created a new threat to William. Affairs in Normandy, however, took his full attention for the next three years.

In Normandy, Duke Robert decided to honor Pope Urban's call for a Crusade to win back the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks to allow free access to pilgrims. To raise the necessary funds, he mortgaged his Duchy to William for 10,000 marks, a sum that could only be raised with difficulty in an England already drained by every method of extortion that could be devised by Flambard. The Church was particularly hit hard. "Have you not gold and silver boxes full of dead men's bones?" asked the king contemptuously when his bishops protested.

Yet the absence of Robert of Normandy on his adventures in the Middle East meant good fortune for the King of England. He was able to depose Donaldbane in Scotland in favor of his vassal Edgar, subdue the rebellious Welsh princes mainly through his sale of the Earldom of Shrewsbury to one of his Norman Barons and begin his campaign to add France to his kingdoms. In August, 1100, however, on a hunting expedition in the New Forest, William was killed. The throne of England now passed to his brother Henry.

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