The Normans and the Plantagenet’s Dynasties

William I was succeeded on the throne, first by his son William II (1087-1100), and later by his son Henry I (1100-1135). They both ensured political stability and thus economic prosperity to England. Henry I wanted his daughter Matilda to succeed him at his death, but some barons disagreed with this choice and a civil war broke out. The controversy was solved through a compromise, Matilda’s cousin Stephen (1135-1154), William II’s son, would reign till his death and her son would then become king as Henry II (1154-1189).

HENRY II (1154-1189)

Henry II (1154-1189).

Henry II was also son of Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou this made him the first king of the Plantagenet’s dynasty as king both of France and England. Henry reinforced order and stability in England and carried out several important reforms. The first one was meant to avoid future civil wars and, at the same time, reduce the baron’s power. The second one improved justice in his realm and the third had the purpose to keep in check the Church’s influence on English territories.

Professional Military and the “Scutage”

To achieve his first intent he decided to employ mercenaries (professional soldiers) for his military campaigns allowing the barons and knights to avoid the military service by paying a tax called the “scutage”, this opportunity was well welcomed by all those who weren’t very pleased to leave their properties for a long time to go fight in the Crusades and in other wars throughout Europe.

Judicial Reforms

The second reform, as stated above, intended to solve the judicial problems and corruption issues that had risen at the time. Henry II sent out through the land royal judges, they travelled in pairs of two, each pair was assigned a “circuit” that they visited entirely once a year to ensure that there was no corruption among barons and that they didn’t keep the fines to themselves, or to guarantee that the feudal courts of the vassals did give proper justice and to administer Common Law, this is a law system based on the fact that it was implemented everywhere in England and referred to customs and comparisons of previous cases and decisions. This wise blend of experience and custom is the basis of English law as there is no such thing as a written constitution and, unlike other European legal practices, it does not follow the models set by the Civil Law of the Roman Empire and the Canon Law of the Church. Still in the field of the law, Henry II enforced trial by jury which was to replace the “trial by ordeal” (supplizio), meaning that tortures were no longer allowed to “encourage” prisoners to confess crimes, but rather a trial whose sentence was pronounced by a judge or jury.

Constitutions of Claredon (1164)

Finally, he wanted to reduce the Church’s power and to do so he introduced the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) through which he claimed the right, as king, to choose the bishops, furthermore, it established that clergymen accused of a crime were to be judged by a civil court along with a religious one. Regarding this last reform he had hoped to be supported by Thomas Becket, his friend, who Henry II had appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket, instead, opposed the king’s will and he was first exiled for five years then, upon his return to England he was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral and became a martyr and a saint whose shrine was visited by pilgrims from all over Europe.

The Burial of St Thomas Beckt - Chartres Cathedral (stainglass window)
The Burial of St Thomas Beckt – Chartres Cathedral (stainglass window)

The Magna Charta and the First Steps Towards Future Democracy

When Henry II died in 1189, his son Richard came to throne as Richard I (1189-1199), better known as “Richard-Lion-Heart”. He was not much interested in ruling England and in 1192 he left to fight in the third Crusade. Crusades were expensive but, the close contacts with the East also increased intellectual and commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia and therefore, were considered altogether useful. During Richard’s absence his brother John substituted him until he actually came to the throne after Richard’s Death.

Paul Giamatti, the last to played King John in "Ironclad"
Paul Giamatti, the last to played King John in “Ironclad”

King John (1199-1216) was also known as “Lackland” (Has-no-land) or “softsword” (Unsuccessful in war). King John’s main concern was to hold on to his French possessions therefore he had to raise money to finance his repeatedly unsuccessful wars by increasing the people’s taxes. This policy made him very unpopular among his subjects and eventually led to a widespread protest among the aristocracy claiming greater power. In 1215, after one more unsuccessful French campaign, King John could no longer contain the demands that came from the three most influential sections of society. In fact, the barons, the church leaders and the merchants of the big towns forced him to sign the Magna Charta which became law in 1225 and was written both in French and in English. Some of the most important changes brought about by the Magna Charta are that the king agreed not “…to levy taxes without the consent of the great council […], no free man shall be arrested, put in prison, or lose his property, or be outlawed, or banished, or harmed in any way […] unless he has been judged by his equals under the law of the land”. This document laid the foundations to a growing democratic system that gradually came about through progressive adjustments that the crown yielded to its society’s most important representatives. The Magna Charta was only the first of a long series of changes that deeply modified, in time, England’s monarchy and political system.

The signing of the Magna Charta
The signing of the Magna Charta

One more step towards those changes, above mentioned and underlining an adjustment to the changing times and to new political challenges, was reached by the special Great Council called by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester as leader of the group of barons that ruled the land filling in for the nine year old king, Henry III (1216-1272), son of the late king John. For the first time these meetings, that came to be known as “parliaments” (from the French), were attended not only by nobles and high ranking clergy, but by two knights from every shire and two merchants from the big towns representing free men as well.

But, the real shift towards what was to become later on the two Houses of Parliament – the House of Lords and the House of Commons – was taken in 1295 when King Edward I (1272-1307), who had conquered Wales and tried to do the same with Scotland but unsuccessfully and who was fighting in France to recover his lands, needed money thus he called the “Model Parliament” to gain the consent of the Great Council to collect taxes from the people as the Magna Charta stated.

In the mean time the struggle for the French throne was an on-going issue even under the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) who claimed the throne of France because his mother was the French king’s sister and in 1337 the Hundred’s Year War broke out lasting until 1453 when England was defeated and lost all its French possession except for Calais.

The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)

The actual issue at stake behind the dispute over the French throne was the Flanders whose independence was threatened by France and which represented England’s most important wool market, therefore it was basically a war over commercial supremacy. On the other hand Edward III is also historically relevant because he introduced in England “chivalry”, this was a concept that held together a set of values linked to the legends of the “Arthurian Cycles” and which were to be embodied by the perfect knight who was to personify bravery, loyalty, honesty and glory. For this purpose Edward founded the “Order of the Garter”, which was made up by a group of twenty-four knights appointed by the king just as many, as it was believed, were the knights of king Arthur who met once a year on St. George’s Day at Windsor Castle, where King Arthur’s Round Table was thought to have been.

Big Changes Ahead

The  Social Background in the 14th Century

The Black Death and the End of Feudalism

Never the less the time of chivalry and feudalism was approaching its natural end. The 14th century was the beginning of new important developments both social and political. The fist important event that led to these changes was the great bubonic plague that broke out in 1348. It was also known as the Black Death because the bodies of the victims turned to a dark colour after death. It was caused by the fleas living on the black rats which infested the ships trading with Europe and it easily spread throughout the entire population all over England due to the lack of sanitation; a very common condition at the time. The mortality rate was extremely high and in a very short period of time villages were depopulated, meaning that very few people were available for farming causing food prices to double in a single year, but at the same time, this allowed labourers to being paid and even to claim increasing wages therefore, this virtually determined the end of Feudalism since agricultural labourers received salaries and peasants could also bargain their freedom and move to town. Thus, the past ties of loyalty that had secured old relationships no longer existed and a new social order was on its way.

Society’s Changes

The 14th century, then, is also the time of a new rising urban and agricultural middle class that can be grouped as follows: in the first place the merchants who had financed the king’s war debts to pay the mercenaries gained greater political power; secondly freeman, or “yeoman”, who owned land and became rich thanks to higher food prices; thirdly those who had chosen to turn their agricultural activity to sheep farming considering it more convenient in the first place because it needed less manual labour and in the second place since it produced more work for a greater number of people – such as spinners, weavers, dyers, those who transported the wool and cloth – giving life to the putting-out-system or proto-industry. Another consequence of the Black Death was the growth of towns that needed more artisans and tradesmen than in the past, such as butchers, bakers, smiths, shoemakers, tailors and carpenters. Eventually all these new tradesmen came together and organized “guilds”, these associations were paid by their members to check the quality of the goods, regulate prices and wages, set the rules for apprenticeship. They also arranged fairs where to sell their products and during feast days during which they improvised themselves as actors in “Miracle Plays”. In time they grew so large that they formed “trading companies”.

The Black Death and Divine Punishment

But the Black Death also changed the relationship between the Church and the people. It was largely believed, in fact, that the plague was a punishment from God and they felt the Church had failed to protect them because of its many privileges and of its worldliness so they turned against it. By the end of Edward III’s reign a religious reformist movement, called “Lollardy”, was supported by many. It was led by an Oxford professor, John Wycliffe, but among its supporters there were, not only academics but, also many merchants, lower clergy and even court members, they attacked the Church’s growing political power and condemned the doctrine of the substation of the bread and wine of the Eucharist and in many ways paved the way to the Reformation of the 16th century.

The Peasants’ Revolt (1381)

This period is also marked by social uprisings. When Edward III died his grandson, Richard II (1377-99) became king. He was only ten therefore, once more, a council of noblemen ruled the kingdom. The first Parliament of the reign raised the so-called “Poll tax” which had to be paid by every individual of both sex of over fourteen years of age and by all the members of the Church, except friars, who had to pay twice as much the rest of the people. This tax finally brought out into the open the underlying discontent of the population which was broadly manifested in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 during which the rebels attacked all those who exploited them and burned the papers that tied them to the lands and its lords. A group of them, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, marched from Kent to London to explain to the king their problems and gain his support, unfortunately the meeting turned to violence and Tyler was killed and despite the fourteen year old king’s promises of help the barons still crushed the uprisings violently.



K. O. Morgan, The Illustrated History of Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1984

Images taken from Google Search


© L. R. Capuana

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