The year 1066 became a turning point in English history. William I (William the Conqueror), and his sons gave England new leadership.
Norman feudalism became the basis for redistributing the land among the conquerors, giving England a French aristocracy and a new social and political structure.
England turned away from Scandinavia toward France, an orientation that was to last for 400 years. William was a hard ruler, punishing England. His power and efficiency can be seen in the Doomsday Survey, a census for tax purposes, and in the Salisbury Oath of allegiance, which he demanded of all tenants.
He appointed Lanfranc, an Italian clergyman, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury and promoted church reform, with the creation of separate church courts, whilst still retaining royal control.
When William died in 1087, he gave England to his son, William II (Rufus), Normandy to his son, Robert. Henry, his third son, left with no lands eventually got both England in 1100, when William II died in a hunting accident, and Normandy in 1106 by conquest. Henry I used his feudal court and household to organize the government. The exchequer, the royal treasury, was established at this time.
Henry wanted his daughter, Matilda (1102-67), to succeed him, but in 1135 his nephew, Stephen of Blois, seized the throne. The years 1135-54 were marked by civil war and strife. The royal government Henry had built fell apart, and the feudal barons asserted their independence. The church, playing one side against the other, extended its authority.
Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou, became King Henry II by right of succession, in 1154. The Angevins, especially Henry II and his sons, Richard and John, expanded royal authority. Henry ended the anarchy of Stephen’s reign, banishing mercenaries and destroying private castles. He strengthened the government created by Henry I. Most important, he developed the common law, administered by royal courts and applicable to all of England. It encroached on the feudal courts’ jurisdiction over land and created the grand jury. Its success demonstrated its efficiency and the growing power of the king. Henry attempted to reduce the jurisdiction of church courts, especially over clergy accused of crimes, but was opposed by Thomas a Becket, his former chancellor, whom he had made Archbishop of Canterbury. His anger at Becket’s intransigence led ultimately to Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in 1170.
Henry’s empire included more than half of France and lordship over Ireland and Scotland. His skill at governing, however, did not include the ability to placate his sons, who rebelled against him several times, backed by the kings of France and by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, was in England only briefly. He was busy fighting in the Crusades and later for the land lost in France during his absence, especially while he was a captive in Germany. Even during Richard’s absence, the government built by Henry II continued to function, collecting taxes to support his wars and to pay his ransom. John, who inherited the resentment against Angevin rule aroused by his father and brother, added to his troubles by his own excesses. In 1204 he lost Normandy. In 1213, after a long fight with Pope Innocent III over the naming of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, John capitulated and acknowledged England to be a papal fief. All this precipitated a quarrel with his barons over his general high handedness and their refusal to follow him into war in Normandy. The barons, led by Langton, forced John in 1215 to accept the Magna Charta (q.v.).
John died in 1216, and the barons accepted his nine-year-old son as King Henry III. They assumed control of the government and confirmed the Magna Charta in 1225, as did Henry when he came of age two years later. Thus began the tradition of royal confirmation of the Magna Charta and the idea that it was the fundamental statement of English law and of limited government. England prospered in the 12th and 13th centuries. Land under cultivation increased; sheep raising and the sale of wool became important. London and other towns became vital centres of trade and wealth, and by royal charters they acquired the right to local self-government. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were established.
The monasteries, especially those of the Cistercians, led the rural expansion and became wealthy in the process. More than a dozen cathedrals were built, along with abbeys and parish churches, all attesting to the wealth of England and of its church.
Franciscans and Dominicans, arrived in England, improving the quality of preaching and becoming the leading scholars in the universities.
Henry III was not an able king, however. He quarrelled with the barons, who thought that they, rather than his favourites, should have the major offices. In 1258 the Provisions of Oxford attempted to give control of the government to a committee of barons. Civil war broke out in 1264, and the baronial leader Simon de Montfort came briefly to power. Montfort, however, was killed in the Battle of Evesham in 1265, and power returned to Henry and his able son, Edward.
Edward I restored royal control and made several reforms. He limited the barons’ right to hold their own courts of law; he curtailed the vassals’ right to dispose of land to the detriment of their feudal lords; and he gave English common law the direction it was to take for centuries to come. Most important, he used and developed Parliament, essentially the king’s feudal council, with a new name and an enlarged membership. The Model Parliament of 1295, following Montfort’s pattern of 1265, consisted of great barons, bishops and abbots, and representatives of counties and towns. In 1297, to get money for his wars, Edward accepted the Confirmation of Charters, agreeing that taxes must have the common assent of the whole realm. This was soon taken to mean assent in Parliament. In the following century, Parliament divided into two houses, Lords and Commons, and made good its claim to control taxation and to participate in the making of statutes. Edward conquered northwest Wales, ending the rule of its native princes. He built stone castles, adopted the Welsh longbow as an English weapon, and named his oldest son the Prince of Wales. He intervened in Scottish affairs, even claiming the Scottish throne. Having fought the Scots often but with little effect, Edward died in 1307 without having subdued the northern kingdom. His son, Edward II, gave up the campaign. In 1314, at the Battle of Bannockburn, King Robert Bruce made good Scotland’s claim to independence. One cost of the war was the long-lasting enmity of Scotland, backed by its alliance with France.
Edward II was a weak king, partly influenced by favourites and partly dominated by the ordinances of 1311 that gave the barons the ruling power. Although he freed himself of baronial rule in 1322, he was forced to abdicate in 1327. His son, Edward III, got on well with the barons by keeping them busy in France, where England continued to hold extensive territory. In 1337 he initiated the Hundred Years’ War to vindicate his claim to the French throne. The English had some initial success at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), where they used the English longbow with deadly effect against the French. By 1396, England had lost all its previous gains. The expense of the war repeatedly forced Edward to go to Parliament for taxes, enabling it to bargain for concessions and to establish its rights and privileges.
The Black Death struck England in 1349, reducing the population by as much as a third. The Statute of Laborers (1351) tried to freeze wages and prevent serfs and workers from taking advantage of the resulting labour shortage. The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 reflected the continuing unrest. It was a time of economic and social change.
The moves by the popes from Rome to Avignon in France (1309-76) and the Great Schism (1378-1417), in which rival popes opposed one another, caused a loss of English respect for the papacy. Statutes of Provisors (1351, 1390) limited the pope’s ability to appoint to church offices in England, and the Statutes of Praemunire (1353, 1393) prevented church courts from enforcing such appointments. John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, criticized corruption in the church and had ideas similar to those of the later Protestant reformers. In 1382 he was removed by an ecclesiastical court to the country parish at Lutterworth, and his ideas were declared heretical. His followers, the Lollards, were persecuted but not stamped out.
Richard II, the grandson of Edward III, began his reign when he was ten years old, with rival factions fighting for control of his government. As an adult he governed moderately until 1397, when he became involved in a struggle with the leading nobles. In 1399 his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, duke of Lancaster, forced him to abdicate and became king in his place as Henry IV.