Brief views on the history of Medieval Britain - from Edward the Confessor to William the Conqueror

This post is a small series of chronological paragraphs that give brief images of around fifty years of history of Medieval England. I hope you enjoy and if you have time, take the opportunity to do your own research and enjoy the full view of the Bayeux tapestry. :)

The Normans are not originally from the country of Britain. The Norman people are actually descendants of the Vikings that came and conquered the land around the 9th century. As Charlemagne’s empire was disintegrating, one viking leader helped cement his power and rule over the land that became known as Normandy.... and it would be this ruler in whom one of his descendants would come to rule England as well – William the Conqueror.

While Edward the Confessor was considered (and is still sometimes considered today) to be the typical Anglo-Saxon king, he was very much a Norman king. When King Cnut died in 1035, there was a bloody civil war between the surviving elite and powerful in the English kingdom. Edward became the king almost by default as he was the only male member left of the Saxon royal family after this gruesome struggle. When Edward- forever known afterwords as Edward the Confessor- was now the sole 'ruler' of England in 1043 at the age of 36, he quickly found he needed some help from the few powerful people left in England as he knew almost nothing about the country. Edward's mother Emma was Norman who took him to Normandy to escape the wars between the Saxons and the Danes... and so this is where he grew up and lived for 30 years. This is the place and culture that shaped him- he spoke Norman French, learned a fierce independence... and lived in a word of almost constant warfare between the titled and their vassals and a world of Catholicism and piety. When he was king, he felt forced to accept the help and guidance of some of the powerful nobles of England, but there is also evidence to show that he also had Norman confidants as well. At his death in 1066, his crown was passed to Harold II... who would keep it for less than a year.

One thing that Edward had done to confuse the succession and to make a very strong statement to some... was to not have children. He had felt forced to marry Edith Godwin, but he would not sleep with her and so she would remain childless. This was the only way he appeared to find to get revenge on Earl Godwin (who had arraigned for Edward's brother to be murdered before Edward's reign) and the earl's scheming and interference. Another thing he appears to have done is to offer his throne to William of Normandy when he (Edward) died. If Edward truly sent Harold Godwinson to Normandy to give William the letter offering the throne of England (which it appears that he might have), that would also muddy the waters with the heir apparent bringing a letter giving away the 'birthright' so to speak and later with Harold's advancement to a knight when William would swear to protect Harold and Harold would also swear to be William's man. So Edward was to die without any truly clear successor. Whether that was truly his choice or simply indecisiveness we will not ever know for sure.

When Edward the Confessor died, there were two men who felt that they had legitimately inherited the throne. Harold Godwinson felt he had a best claim to the throne. He was the eldest son of the Earl of Wessex (Godwin) who had been the most powerful man in England during the reign of King Cnut and became the second in power during the reign of King Edward (to the King's anger and disgust). Upon his (Godwin's) death in 1053, his sons would continue the strong behind the scenes ruling of England.... and these sons included Harold Godwinson. One of the daughters of Earl Godwin named Edith had been forced onto Edward the Confessor in marriage which created another clear tie to the throne. So Harold had been the lead man behind Edward and with his family and political ties, he could easily have assumed and seen himself as the only legitimate ruler. Last, but not least, King Edward had touched Harold's hand on his deathbed... which Harold was more then ready to accept as a sign of Edward's approval and Harold's legitimacy to the throne. William the Bastard was well known to Edward as it appears they may have grown up together and even have been childhood companions. As he reached his adult majority, William quickly and methodically gained absolute power over the land of Normandy.... frankly, it sounds as if he was really darn lucky to have achieved his adult majority at all! According to some sources, Edward then offered the throne of England to his childhood friend William, the Duke of Normandy. As the King had 'offered' the throne to William, we can certainly see why he would feel that he had the most legitimate claim to if. William was also the supreme ruler of France.... Harold was simply a man who ruled in the 'silence' behind the actual king... William also had a faint family connection- he was related to the wife of King Cnut. Lastly, William also had the support of the Pope- a mighty support indeed.

In some ways, Harold Godwinson sealed his doom before he ever took the crown. This cane be seen in his treatment of his brother Tostig. Harold's brother Tostig was the Earl of Northumbria and was not considered a 'good guy'. Earl Tostig was so infuriating to his subjects that his actions eventually provoked a rebellion. The local nobles who won the fight declared Tostig an outlaw and named another man as a replacement for the Earl. Harold was sent by King Edward to try and solve the crisis and Harold soon realized that the answer to the solution came in one of two tough solutions: he could support his younger brother and potentially start a civil war... or he could throw out his younger brother and hope that in the future these nobles would support him for a bid for the crown. He chose the later solution- making a bitter enemy of his brother which in the end would cost him his life. (This choice might have also been a bit more difficult as it is suggested that Tostig was a favorite of King Edward so when Harold made this choice, it may have been expressly against the wishes of the King.) This 'ill treatment' by his brother would not be forgiven by Tostig. Tostig would bring the king of a nearby country (Harold Hardrada) and a large army back with him to England in an attempt to remove his brother Harold from the English throne.

Harold Hardrada (or Harold III) was the King of Norway and his reputation was as a unconquerable, ruthless warrior- no one wanted to tangle with this individual! Harold was also the owner of a slight claim to the English throne himself- the Norman ruler before him had made an agreement with the English ruler that they would give their lands to the surviving leader (it is believed. ) When the English ruler died, Magnus of Norway did not press his claim and allowed Edward the Confessor to take the throne. King Harold decided to use this 'fact' to press his suit.... although it is thought that Harold would not have actually pressed his claim without the encouragement of the revengeful brother of England's king (Tostig). Unfortunately for both King Harold and Tostig, this battle would end with the loss of both of their lives... and the temporary success of King Harold of England.

In the year 1066, England suffered quite a political upheaval. This was the year of the famous 'Battle of Hastings' and the year that the rule of the Saxons ended in England... to be taken over by the Normans (also known as Vikings). The English King, Harold II, died on the battlefield fighting the Duke William II of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard although he was never called this to his face. :) If you had been a powerful or rich personality before the battle, you were now a Saxon whose property and money had been taken by the new government and part of the race of the 'conquered'... which meant that you were also considered of a lower status than the Normans. This change really altered the way of life for most of the English people. Many were displaced and many died of battle, plague, famine, etc... For instance, it is known that about half of the English nobility died at the Battle of Hastings. In the next few months and years, King William and his army pillaged and ravaged the rest of the country into an almost total submission. Many parts of these cultures were different from each other which would also have affected the native English- surnames were used by the Normans while Anglo-Saxons used place names.... the idea of keeping estates intact and leaving it to the eldest son was also a Norman tradition. The Normans had different verbal accents, ways of looking at other people and at property, and would use available resources to depress and control the Saxons over all other Normans... including resources such as the legal system that the Saxons had developed before they were conquered. It was truly an occupation in the usual sense of the word. (I wonder if it felt a little bit like how some of the Iraqis might currently feel... or some of the population of South Africa a few decades ago...? I am not sure I could really understand this feeling as I have never lived it...)

William I, also known as 'the 'Conqueror', 'of Normandy', and (quietly of course) 'the Bastard', was truly nothing like many of the other known conquerors such as Cnut. While Cnut tried to change nothing about the culture or the lives of his subjects in England so his rule didn't really effect very many people in his kingdom, William would have found that task impossible even if he was willing to try it. He, for one, had promised land and spoils to his army which would cause the expected numbers of refugees and displaced people in England. After the Battle of Hastings, the next few months were spent with the stereotypical 'rape and pillaging' in an attempt to truly subdue his new 'subjects'. Over time King WIlliam built huge castles all over the country where loyal Normans well placed to help control any rebellious subjects and keep down revolts- these places could be seen as places for terror and torture to anyone who ran afoul of William or his allies. When he considered it necessary, intentional famine and massacres were also tactics used by William and his armies to quell and subdue revolts. In a phrase, King Cnut's presence was really never felt in England.... while you probably could never forget or get through your day without a thought of King William.

William of Normandy was really one of the first leaders who recognized that knowledge was really power. He used his power to gain information which was collected into a book called the 'Doomsday Book'. This king used his power and the fear he gave his subjects to force them to accept Norman culture. He made huge changes in the way that buildings were made and built cathedrals and other building in a fairly massive style in comparison to the past. He ruled over some changes to the English language as well as shifts in the nobility and their power. By his death, he had put his mark on most of the institutions of medieval England.

This book was a large grouping of all the information of the English 'kingdom'. It took almost six months to collect the information from across the country- which is amazing considering the time and a brief nod to the remnants of the government and civil service that the Saxons had left behind. Each village and group had to document everything they had – every animal, every assets... quite literally everything so that nothing could be hidden from King William. Housed in two 'books', everything written in this book was considered law and there was no appeal to the tax assessors. This helped King William heavily tax his subjects because it was so much more difficult for his subjects to 'hide' any assets. The book even lists the worth of the documented assets so that it would be difficult to change the worth later. This book also gives the king information about the numbers of men, slaves, etc... giving him very valuable information for potential military service, etc... These books were called the Domesday book because it was said that 'the book's decisions were as final as the last judgment'.

No comments:

Post a Comment