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History Notes > History of the British Isles II: 1042-1330 Notes

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Charlotte Moss Page 1 of 7

1042-1330 Commentary The period between 1042 and 1330 has been cited as one of chaotic upheaval and almost continual warfare. Following the interruption of the Wessex succession in 1016 by Cnut of Denmark, the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the new Norman kings unintentionally established a system of contested successions. William the Conqueror, unlike Cnut, brought a comprehensive change to English government due to the new cross-Channel nature of the aristocracy. The history of the British Isles prior to this time had been linked to areas such as Scandinavia but 1066 brought a change in focus whereby Normandy became a definitive part of the 'British' political scene. The ensuing century saw a process of assimilation of Norman culture and government. This was undoubtedly a period of immense political change but there is also a debate as to what extent this period was one of general continuity. This ultimately centres on the amount of change which can be effected by a tiny ruling elite of only about 2,000 men, especially when Norman kings retained many English laws and customs. For many of the kings at this time, England was merely part of a wider aim of conquest where Anglo-Saxon systems such as shires and hundreds were valued for their efficacy and where England was seen as administratively secure enough to have an absentee king for up to half of each of the reigns until King John. Outside of the political timeline, there were both significant developments and continuities which were arguably more long-lasting and more relevant to the majority of the population. The conquest of England succeeded in 1066 as part of a Norman policy but there were further geographical expansions and contractions in different parts of the British Isles. For much of the period, military energies and expenditures were focused on continental possessions such as Anjou and Gascony. By 1224, however, Gascony was England's only remaining foreign land and by the 1259 Treaty of Paris, Henry III gave up his claims to his previous duchies and paid homage to Louis IX for Gascony. The forcibly 'English' nature of kingship at this time led Edward I to turn his conquering sights west towards Wales. Between 1276 and 1284 there was a determined effort to gain control of the various lordships north of the south Wales area which the Normans had colonised. This culminated in the 1284 Statute of Wales whereby 'the whole land of Wales shall be entirely annexed and united to the crown of our be a dominion of our ownership...part and parcel of the body of our crown and kingdom'. Newly acquired lands were divided into shires such as Caernarfon and Welsh laws and customs were also aligned more towards the English common law. In order to secure such changes, Edward I built a ring of castles around Gwynedd in northern Wales. In contrast to this, no English king visited Ireland between 1210 and 1394 and instead it was assetstripped, to the extent that the revenue of 1318 was a third of what it had been under Edward I leading to a contraction of English rule to the Pale around Dublin. English kings also intended to exert their superior lordship over Scotland yet this led to the creation of the 'auld alliance' between Scotland and France and despite intensive warfare, the overwhelming success of the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314 ensured the failure of English supremacy. The conquering aspirations of these kings were extremely costly; at least
PS75,000 was spent on castle building in Wales between 1277 and 1301 alone. Furthermore, due to the inflation of the period, the costs of such warfare were increasing whilst the king's traditional revenues, mainly based on royal land,

Charlotte Moss Page 2 of 7 were decreasing. A potentially more important development, therefore, came out of this military wrangling; the new taxation of personal property and the need for greater national consent. This form of tax was initially used in 1166 in order to fund expeditions to the Holy Land and when John levied it at the rate of a thirteenth in 1207, it produced PS60,000 pounds. Richard FitzNeal, bishop of London, Treasurer of England and author of The Dialogue of the Exchequer said that 'the power of princes fluctuates according to the ebb and flow of their cash resources' and with this new tax it would seem that medieval kings were at the pinnacle of their power. The success of AngloSaxon administration in conjunction with new financial exactions led to bureaucratic developments with the establishment of a permanent royal treasury at Winchester by 1066, the earliest reference to the exchequer being made in 1110 and the first national customs system coming into existence in the mid 1190s. Gerald of Wales described the king as 'a robber permanently on the prowl, always probing, always looking for the weak spot where there is something for him to steal' and when the barons revolted in 1258, one of their major complaints was against Henry III's taxation. The 1259 Provisions of Westminster contain one of the earliest references to parliament as a council of reliable men elected by the commune which should meet three times a year. Although these conditions were not put in place, the lack of warfare to justify taxation after 1214 meant that by the 1250s the Commons were given a greater role in order to consent to new taxes. Nevertheless, the unprecedented taxation in the 1290s led the magnates only to agree to the fifteenth of 1290 'insofar as they were entitled to' and following the abolishment of the maltolt in 1297 and the redeployment of Magna Carta in 1297 and 1300 it was agreed that no further taxation would be levied 'except by the common consent of all the realm and for the common profit of the said realm'. The period between 1290 and 1330 was therefore crucial for the creation of parliament and although FitzNeal was correct in his analysis of the king's power; there was now a change of emphasis towards 'the common consent of all the realm'. After 1327, meetings with just the magnates and prelates and without the knights and burgesses ceased to be referred to as parliaments. It can be argued that the beginning of the 14th century saw the beginning of a 'public sphere' with somewhat greater participation of the population in government, the aim of regulating royal power and the immense diffusion of the written word. The royal writ had been issued by the Anglo-Saxon kings and although we only have about 2,000 writs and charters from that period, by the 13 th century tens of thousands are extant. Throughout this period there was a great increase in the number of documents that were written and preserved with the key date being 1199 when chancery clerks began to systematically keep copies of all documents. Although not all the population were literate, major works such as Domesday Book and Magna Carta show the inclusion of the whole realm in this new mechanism of both control and expression against the background of the 12th century Renaissance. The increased use of seals and charters entailed a literary codification of traditional rights and customs which, although enserfing around half the population, preserved the customary rights for which peasants had previously had to fight. The new codification of tradition defined the feudal services due to a lord and therefore gave a more rigid feudal structure to medieval society than in Anglo-Saxon times which was reinforced and militarised by the building of castles across the country.

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