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Merely The Replacement Of One Ruling Elite By Another Notes

History Notes > British History, 400-1088AD Notes

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Jonathan Lindsell

25/04/2011

"Merely the replacement of one ruling elite by another" Does this seriously underestimate the effects of the Norman Conquest?
To explore this topic it is necessary first to define both the time period in question, and the precise meaning of "ruling elite". Clearly, comparing late Anglo-Saxon England with the England ruled by Stephen of Blois will demonstrate more marked changes than those experienced immediately after Duke William's conquest. This essay, therefore, will focus only on the state of Britain between 1066 and William's death, although evidence from his successors will be used to indicate what the state of affairs in his reign probably resembled. What is more, 'ruling elite' is a very ambiguous term. As will be shown below, landowners from the King down to the richer ceorls were replaced by Normans, but surely not all of these count as rulers, either originals or newcomers. Thus for the sake of clarity the essay will treat "ruling elite" to mean the royal family, the bishops and archbishops of the church, and the greater magnates, the "tenants in chief". With these terms defined, the essay shall contend that although it is certainly true that the Anglo Saxon ruling elite were replaced by Norman nobility, this was no "mere" change, and nor was it the only alteration to the fabric of English history effected in 1066. The Norman Conquest brought with it an alien language, novel church reform ideals, more cavalry- and castle-oriented military customs, and a reshaping of the social order, with the King holding far more power in comparison to his magnates than Edward the Confessor could've hoped for, and yet he maintained his rule from afar, impossible in the Anglo Saxon "face-to-face" culture. However, it is important not to overlook English institutions that William I essentially left unchanged. Foremost amongst these was the hidage system (and its equivalents in the North and East Anglia). Organising land of about 100 hectares into hides, hides into hundreds and hundreds into shires was a ready-made system that allowed relatively advanced taxation, courts/assemblies, law-keeping, army mustering and the management of royal demesne. While William certainly changed who owned the land, with regards to the system of its organisation, he took the approach "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Indeed, he threw his weight behind the system, relying upon Royal Reeves to manage his own estates, and upon their superior in the shire, the Shire-Reeve (sic. Sheriff) to order the administration of his county (rather than allowing the local magnate to extend his power). It is relatively easy to see evidence of William using the predetermined system to his own advantage in his relentless raising of geld, both to fill the royal coffers, and to pay his army, not only for the 1066 campaign, but also for crushing the subsequent rebellions of Earls Edwin and Morcar, and the last of the House of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling, which lasted until

1072. That Cnut could raise geld worth PS72,000 in 1018, as a one-off payment, suggests the immense strength of the hundred system, which handsomely rewarded William's exploitation when he decided to use it as an annual tax and double the due of each hide. Initially, the Norman Kings also left the English legal system relatively untouched. The split method of policing and pledging for keeping "the King's Peace" seemed to be as effective as the Norman way of upholding the law, so it was left unchanged, with each boy of 12 giving an oath to uphold order to the best of his ability and assist in arrests (policing) and the need for each man to receive 12 pledges guaranteeing his good behaviour (pledging). Gradually the Norman "frankpledge" emerged, in which the man would be designated pledgers rather than choose pledgers himself, and from

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