The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Economic and Social Development of the State in the 12th century

Category: 12th century

The whole economic development of the country from the 11th to the 14th century illustrates the increasing degree of exploitation of the peasant by the feudal lords, as well as by the church. Trade was increasing throughout the country with merchants and middlemen who travelled from manor to manor and market to market. Much trading consisted of wool, which could be profitably sold not only at the local market but more especially to the cloth-manufacturing towns of the European continent, particularly Flanders. England was not originally a cloth-weaving country, and when Flemish weavers were brought into the country in the 14th century to teach the secrets of their trade to English peasants and craftsmen, the resulting cloth manufacture meant a still more rapid increase of the volume of trade and more rapid accumulation of wealth. Till: towns grew rapidly in size, importance and wealth, and became centres of handicraft production of all kinds.

The lords of the manor were no longer content to accept merely the surplus produce of their peasants for their own immediate use, but began to increase their wealth by the sale ‘of agricultural products at the country markets. Striving to achieve greater productivity the lords were interested to pay money to the peasant who would sell his labour for hire, rather than rely on forced labour which was unproductive. The peasant who had been unfortunate with his harvest quite often became a hired agricultural labourer. In this way wage labourers were formed, without land of their own. This process of ‘commuting’ labour services for money was spreading gradually over the country, but it was not complete, when it was interrupted by a disaster in the middle of the 14th century, the plague or Black Death, which spread all throughout Europe including England.

In the 12th century a new dynasty was established in England—the so-called Plantagenet dynasty. Henry II (1154—89), became King of England. He came from France and his family name was Angevin, but he was called Henry Plantagenet, because that was the name of Henry’s father, the Count of Anjou. The name Plantagenet was taken from their badge, which was a sprig of planta genista, the Latin name for broom. His domain included large possessions in France.’ To his new English possessions he soon added some Scotch territory, established his lordship over Wales and made ‘conquests’ in Ireland. Henry was the first English king to attempt the conquest of Ireland. The country was seriously divided—with little central government. In 1169 an Irish chieftain asked Henry for aid, and in reply the king sent an adventurer, Richard Strongbow, who proceeded to conquer much of the country. Two years later Henry II himself .crossed the Irish Channel and became recognized as Lord of Ireland. However, he succeeded in establishing his authority only in a small district around Dublin known as ‘The Pale’ because of fierce Irish opposition. The events marked the beginning of the long struggle of the Irish people for independence against English yoke. To rule such a vast domain effectively, Henry had to have considerable money. To secure this, he restored the Exchequer to its earlier prominence and made it aid him in collecting the customary taxes, as well as some/newly introduced taxes. With this money he employed mercenaries for his army instead of using unwilling vassals. He removed most of the old sheriffs and replaced them by appointees of his own who were better tax collectors. Henry II had four sons, two of which died in his lifetime. When Henry II died he was succeeded by Richard, best known as the Lionhearted, who loved adventure and conflict and typified the chivalry of the time. All but six months of his ten years’ reign he spent abroad either on a crusade or on the continent of Europe. On Richard’s death John, the fourth son of Henry II, became king (1199-1216).

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