The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 11th century

The rule of Danish kings over England came to an end soon after Canute’s death in 1035, for neither of his two sons reigned long, and both died childless. In these circumstances the Witan, or council of chief nobles and clergy, invited Ed­ward, the son of Ethelred the Unready, to be king. During the period of Danish rule he had lived in exile, in Normandy.

Who, then, were the Normans? The Danish attacks had run much the same course in France as in England. At first the vikings had merely raided the coasts, then they had settled, and finally they had made terms with the king, by which they became Christians and were given a province for themselves. The dukes were supposed to be under the supremacy of the kings ofFrance, but they made themselves practically in­dependent. The Normans adopted the language and manners and customs of the French; they took to building castles and fighting on horseback, they developed the feudal system, they founded churches and abbeys.

The new king of England(Edward the Confessor), being half Norman by blood and wholly Norman by upbringing regarded his English subjects as uncouth, half-civilised folk. He brought over a number of Norman clerics to be bish­ops and counsellors; it was said of him that he was better fitted to be a Norman monk than an English king. His great interest in life was the building of Westminster Abbey, and after his death the Pope gave him the title of “ The Confessor. ” His personal devotion took so much of his time and thoughts that he left the government of the country largely in the hands of the powerful nobles who ruled the various provinces. The most important of these was Earl Godwin of Wessex, who had contrived that the King should marry his daughter. When Godwin died in 1053 he was succeeded by his son Har­old, who proved himself a very able warrior and statesman.

As the King grew older he took less and less part in public affairs, and the control of the government fell more and more to Earl Harold. Moreover since Edward had no children, Harold cherished the hope that he would eventually succeed to the throne. But in the year of 1064 he suffered a set-back. While cruising the Channel, his vessel was blown over to theshoreofNormandy, and wrecked there; and by the custom of the time, this made him the prisoner of the reigning prince. Duke William ofNormandywas an ambitious and deter­mined man, who himself had designs on the English throne. Some years before he had visited his relative King Edward, and it was rumoured that he had induced him to bequeath the throne to him. He now made most of the chance which placed his rival in his power. He treated Harold with great courtesy, but would not release him until he had sworn on an altar containing the bones of a saint that he would support his (William’s) claims.

Two years after Harold’s misadventure in Normandy King Edward died, whereupon the Witan chose Harold as king. William of Normandy called upon all the Christian warriors of Europe to help him gain his rights and to punish Harold’s wickedness in breaking his oath. He spent the sum­mer of 1066 mustering his forces and building boats to trans­port them across the Channel.

King Harold collected an army to guard the coasts of Sussex and Kent, and a fleet to intercept the invaders in the Channel. But adverse winds prevented the Norman from setting out till late in September, and this proved a blessing in disguise to William. When September came, Harold de­cided that his enemy would not come that year and demo­bilised his men who had to go home to harvest their crops. Late in September, 1066, Duke William landed at Pevensey, near Hastings.

The forces engaged in the Battle of Hastings were fairly equal in numbers, but the Normans were greatly superior in quality. Harold’s army consisted mainly of amateur war­riors, whereas William’s Normans and Frenchmen were all men to whom fighting was the main occupation in life: archers, men-at-arms, and knights. The English had never adopted the new fashion of fighting on horseback. They often rode to the scene of action; but, once arrived there, they sent their horses to the rear and fought on foot. Thus the battle consisted mainly of cavalry attacks on a defen­sive position protected by a wall of shields and stakes driven into the ground. The decisive moment came when Harold was killed by an arrow. Dismayed by this, the defence faltered, and the Normans succeeded in breaking the line. That night the Conqueror pitched his tent on the spot where Harold’s flag had flown.

William did not make a direct attack on London. He crossed the Thames at night and circled round to approachLondonfrom the north. The English magnates came out to meet him and made their submission.

The time had now come for rewards and punishments. The estates of all who had supported Harold or acknowl­edged him as king were forfeited, and given to the Normans who had taken part in the conquest. Rebellions atExeter(led by the family of the late king) and in the northern mid­lands merely gave William excuse for more confiscations.

It used to be thought that the Conqueror introduced feu­dalism into England, but this is only partly true. All the ele­ments of feudalism were already growing up inEngland. King Edgar (959—975) had made a law that “Every landless man must have a lord” to be responsible for his good con­duct.

All land was now held in feudal service; the services and dues became more regular and definite. Many English free­men cultivating village lands became “villeins” — the new Norman lords did not bother about their special priveleges. And there was now the barrier of language between the ruling class and the farming ruled class.

For two centuries after the Norman Conquest, England was ruled by foreign kings. Under their rule the Anglo- Saxon and Norman elements were gradually welded togeth­er.

After the Conquest Norman French became the language of the upper classes and of the Government. French was used in Parliament, in the law-courts, in all official writings. English was looked down upon as a rude and barbarous tongue, and was only heard on the lips of serfs and yeomen, or of those who were still proud of the fact that they were na­tive born.

In the fourteenth century English came into its own again. In 1362 it was ordained that all pleadings in law courts should be in English, and Parliament was first opened with an English speech. By the end of the century the poet Chaucer had fixed English as the literary language of the country by writing his “Canterbury Tales” in his own tongue.

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