British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Narrative History of England
Part 5: Medieval Britain (cont'd.) by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.

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.

Henry I (1100-1135)
Of the three sons of the Conqueror, Henry was the most able. A competent administrator at home, he succeeded in the conquest of Normandy. Though much of the blame for the death of his brother William was attributed to Walter Tyrrell, who fled the country, it is significant that Henry was present in the hunting party. He wasted no time in claiming the throne, riding to seize the treasure at Winchester just ahead of William of Bretueil, a supporter of the claim of Duke Robert of Normandy. His supporters quickly elected Henry King of England and he was crowned by the Bishop of London in the absence of the exiled Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury. Henry ensured the support of his English subjects by issuing a solemn charter promising to redress grievances, especially those involving the selling of vacant benefices to the highest bidder.

That Henry I of England, much in the manner of William Rufus, failed to keep "the law of Edward" as promised, did not seem to matter as much as did his success in keeping the peace. He had the hated Flambard thrown into prison. He brought back Anselm to Canterbury, and thus helped heal the breach between the Church and the Crown, though the big problem of lay investiture remained, as well as Anselm's refusal to honor the appointments made by Henry during his exile. The archbishop did mollify the situation by officiating at the popular marriage of Henry to Edith, a descendant of Edward the Confessor and a most suitable choice as Queen of England. Anselm wisely chose to ignore the fact that Edith had taken holy orders as a nun, preferring to believe that she had only done this to protect herself from importunate suitors rather than to fulfil a desire to enter a convent.

Many of the leading Barons of Normandy who held lands in England came to Henry's court to pay homage, though many of them preferred Robert as their lord and schemed to replace Henry with their choice. They were aided by the ex-treasurer of England, Ranulf Flambard, who had escaped his captors and returned to Normandy to help organize an expedition to capture the English throne. King Henry could count on the support of his English subjects; his leading barons would wait to see which side could benefit them most. Robert duly landed at Portsmouth in 1101 to begin his march on London.

Losing his nerve, the Duke decided to treaty instead of fight, accepting a pension of 3,000 marks and a promise of help to recover his rebellious dependency of Maine. The terms of the Treaty of Alton, needless to say, were never honored by Henry, who immediately began to punish those barons who had sided with Robert. It took all of England's resources to deal with the ensuing rebellion of the powerful house of Montgomery, aided by the Welsh princes. Henry promised South Wales to Lorwerth ap Bleddyn, forcing the Montgomerys to negotiate for peace. Henry was uncompromising, however, and stripped Robert, Arnulf and Roger of all their holdings in England. The king was now supreme in his rule, free from any serious rival. He could now turn his attention to withholding royal authority from the encroachments of the Church in Rome, growing ever more ambitious under a series of able popes.

For the king, the customs of the realm of England took precedence over the claims of the Church. In this, he was aided by Gerard the Archbishop of York, who argued that the Mother of Churches was Jerusalem, not Rome, and that the Papacy was an institution of merely human ordinance. Predating Wycliffe, Gerard argued that the Scriptures alone could give religious instruction; there was no need to have the will of God expounded by a Pope. Kings were ordained by God to rule the Church no less than the State.

The struggle between Anselm and Henry was abetted by the new Pope Paschal; all three were obdurate, with the English archbishop even moving to France unable to satisfy his king. In the meantime, Henry appropriated Church revenues and enacted measures that led the bishops to beg for Anselm's return. Continued trouble with Normandy, however, put the Church-Crown struggle temporarily on hold.

Normandy had become a Mecca for just about all of those opposed Henry of England, who now resolved to dispossess his brother. He started by bribing the Count of Flanders and the King of France to transfer their allegiance. The conquest of Normandy began in the spring of 1105, climaxing in the one-hour battle at Tinchebrai when Robert surrendered. Normandy now belonged to Henry, King of England. Thus the English soldiers, who had formed a large part of Henry's army, could now say that the Battle of Hastings was avenged. Robert was held captive in Cardiff Castle in Wales to spend the remainder of his life a closely-guarded prisoner.

Henry could now introduce into the anarchy that had been Normandy some of the order and economy that he had established in England. His one great mistake was to entrust the infant son of Robert, William the Clito, to the charge of one who would later raise a rebellion against him, and for twenty years, the policies of Henry and his Norman possessions was determined by those who continued to plot against him.

Back in England, the Church-Crown struggle continued; fear of excommunication led the King to finally agree to a compromise with Anselm. Henry renounced the right of investing prelates, but would continue to receive their homage for their temporal possessions and duties. The treaty, nonetheless, did nothing to settle the question of the English Church's longed-for independence from the Crown. But it left Henry at the pinnacle of his power. The death of Anselm meant that the King could appoint a successor more favorable to his own views.

Flambard, restored to Durham, remained too unpopular to cause any trouble for the king. In addition, Henry kept in check the powers and ambitions of the great Barons by judiciously exercising his feudal rights. He prohibited the custom of private war, forbade the building of castles or fortified dwellings without his license and insisted that every under-tenant regard the King as his chief lord. Above all, he insisted on the rule of law.

When Henry first acceded to the throne, there had been different laws for different folks according to where they resided, for example, West Saxons were treated differently from Mercians. But the King's Court, the "Curia Regis" of Henry, refused to recognize these differences. The rule was that the law of the King's Court must stand above all other law and was the same for all. The king's justices travelled into the shires to see that his mandate was carried out. Before Henry died, the most distinctive of the old provincial differences had disappeared.

From all the varying tribes that dwelled in England, with their mutually incomprehensible dialects and varying legal customs and traditions, a new nation was being forged out of the common respect for the King's writ, out of their submission to and increasing attachment to the same principles of law and their trust in the monarchy to protect them against oppression. Henry, the "Lion of Justice" thus propelled his English possessions towards a sense of national unity totally lacking in other lands. However, trouble returned upon the king's death in 1135.

Return to Anarchy: Stephen (1135-1154)
The order of Henry l's reign soon disintegrated under his successor Stephen of Blois. Events had started in 1128 when Geoffrey the Fair, nicknamed Plantagenet on account of a sprig of broom (genet) he wore in his cap, and soon to be the Count of Anjou, married the Empress Matilda, daughter and designated heiress of Henry, King of England and Duke of Normandy. When Henry died and his nephew and favorite Stephen seized the throne and the dukedom, the houses of Anjou and Blois began their long struggle for control of both. Briefly, in this struggle, Matilda concentrated on England and Count Geoffrey on Normandy, where he became Duke in 1144. Events reluctantly forced Stephen to acknowledge Geoffrey in his Dukedom as well as Matilda's son Henry as heir to his English throne.

Stephen gained early notoriety by running away from Antioch during the First Crusade. He later more than made up for this at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141 when he fought on foot long after much of his army had fled, wearing out a battle axe and a sword before being captured. His adherence to the code of chivalry led him to give safe conduct to Matilda, entirely at his mercy, to her brother's castle at Bristol, a grievous error. Matilda, as wife of Geoffrey, had a secure base in Anjou and later in Normandy and Stephen was made to pay dearly for his act of benevolence (or stupidity).

In 1126, Stephen, one of the wealthiest of the Anglo-Norman landholders, had taken an oath to accept the succession of Matilda, an oath he quickly forgot when he seized the treasury at Winchester and had himself crowned King. Acceptance of his Dukedom quickly followed from the Norman barons and early in 1136, Stephen's position seemed secure. Even Matilda's half brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester paid him homage at his Easter Court. Then it all unraveled for this good knight who was also, in the words of chronicler Walter Map, a fool. His courtesy and chivalry were not matched by efficacy in governing, and his political blunders were legion. Prominent features of his reign, accordingly, were civil wars and local disturbances.

The war of succession began when Matilda's uncle, David, King of Scotland invaded England on her behalf in 1135. It was under the rule of David, the ninth son of Malcom III, that Norman influence began to percolate through much of southern Scotland. David was also Prince of Cumbria, and through marriage Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon. Brother-in-law to the King of England, he was raised and educated in England by Normans who "polished his manners from the rust of Scottish barbarity." In Scotland, he distributed large estates to his Anglo-Norman cronies who also took over important positions in the Church. Into the Lowlands he introduced a feudal system of land ownership, founded on a new, French-speaking Anglo-Norman aristocracy that remained aloof from the majority of the Gaelic-speaking Celtic population.

It is to David that Scotland's future as an independent kingdom can be traced. When conflict arose between the new (and weak) English King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, David took the opportunity to reassert old territorial claims to the border lands, including Cumbria. At the Treaty of Durham in 1136, he retained Carlisle (which he had earlier seized). His invasion of England took him into Yorkshire. However, fierce resistance, to what has been called his needless, gleeful violence led to his defeat at Northallerton in the "Battle of the Standard." Yet, due mainly to Stephen's troubles, the Scottish king was able to gain practically all of Northumbria at a second treaty of Durham in 1139. At David's death in 1153, the kingdom of Scotland had been extended to include the Modern English counties of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland, territories that were in future to be held by the kings of Scotland.

In the meantime, Matilda landed at Arundel in 1139 with a large army. Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, when his Barons deserted him, only to be exchanged for Robert of Gloucester after Matilda had incurred the enmity of the citizens of London, and the Queen had raised an army to defend the city. Despite Matilda's being proclaimed "Domina Anglorum" at Winchester, the civil wars continued intermittently, with Matilda and her supporters firmly entrenched in the West country, normally on the defensive, often desperately close to being defeated, but Stephen ultimately was unable to dislodge them.

The wars of succession in England, caused by Stephen's failure to recognize Matilda as rightful monarch, were not happy times. Both armies relied heavily on foreign mercenaries, anxious to set up their own private fiefdoms in England and on occasion, managing to do so. In contrast to the peace of Henry's reign, the English countryside now suffered the sad consequences of an unremitting struggle with lawless armies on the rampage and barons paying off old scores. Matilda, finally despairing at her failure to dislodge Stephen, left for Normandy, never to return.

A more successful campaign was then carried out by Matilda's son Henry, beginning in 1153. When his eldest son Eustace died the same year, Stephen agreed to a compromise. He was to continue as king so long as he lived and to receive Henry's homage. In turn, Henry was to be recognized as rightful heir. In the meantime, complete anarchy prevailed in which the functions of central government quickly broke down. Fragmentation and decentralization were the order of the day. The situation called out desperately for a strong able ruler. Henry II came along just in time.

Resource Information

Part 5: Medieval Britain, continued

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