As we have seen, the Anglo-Saxons, largely because of pressure from the Vikings, had built one of the strongest states in Western Europe by 1000 C.E. However, the Anglo Saxons could never quite escape the Vikings. A Danish king, Canute, took over and ruled England in the early part of the eleventh century. And in 1066, William of Normandy, a descendant of Hrolf the Walker, the Viking chief who became the first duke of Normandy in 911 C.E., landed in England to claim the English crown.
The Normans, as the Viking descendants who ruled Normandy were called, had assumed at least a veneer of Frankish culture and Christianity while their dukes had built one of the strongest and best run feudal principalities in Europe. However, their most long-lasting accomplishments took place in England.
In December 1065, the Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, whose excessive piety is said to have prevented him from producing any heirs to the throne, died. William, Duke of Normandy, had a legitimate claim to the throne as Edward's cousin, but the Saxon nobles chose Harold of Wessex instead. For William, there was only one response: take the crown by force. He gathered an army of some 5000 knights and infantry, promising his followers land in England. He also was armed with a papal blessing and banner, partly because of the Norman dukes' policy of liberally endowing the Church with lands and partly because the Pope wanted to bring the somewhat independent Saxon clergy more into line with current Catholic practices.
Ironically, luck was with the Normans, since adverse winds held them up long enough for still another Viking claimant to the throne, Harold Hardraade of Norway, to land in the north. The Saxon king, Harold of Wessex, rushed north to drive out his namesake, which he did at the bloody battle of Stamford Bridge. Then he had to rush his tired Saxons southward to meet the Normans who had now landed in England.
The Battle of Hastings (10/14/1066) pitted mounted medieval knights against the Saxon infantry drawn up in a shield wall on the crest of a ridge. Frontal assaults by Norman knights, infantry, and archers could not make a dent in the shield wall. Norman trickery could. Feigning retreat, the Norman knights drew groups of Saxons out of formation, surrounded them, and wiped them out. Being weakened several times by this tactic, the Saxon army then came under a barrage of arrows and one final charge of Norman cavalry that won the day. This gave William the crown and the title "the Conqueror", which was much more appealing than his previous nickname "the Bastard". Never since has England fallen to foreign conquest.
Much more remarkable than William's victory was how he consolidated it through a combination of feudal practices from the continent and old Saxon customs. While he owed his followers land, William also wanted to keep them from getting too powerful as had happened to the French monarchy. The solution was to give the nobles lands, but scatter them over England so that they could not gather power in one area as a threat to the king. There were exceptions to this, notably on the frontiers bordering Scotland and Wales where power needed to be concentrated for defense. William also took about 20% of England's land for himself, showing that it was still a primary source of power. He demanded a large feudal army totaling 5000 knights from the 180 barons to whom he had given land, which forced them to subinfeudate their lands to meet this quota. Thus England quickly came to resemble the feudal monarchy of France. The Normans also built some 500 castles in England between 1066 and 1100 AD, to guard against native uprisings as well as foreign invasions.
William also used several Saxon institutions to great advantage. He demanded from each freeman in England a personal oath of loyalty that took precedence over any feudal oaths vassals paid their lords, thus strengthening ties of loyalty to the king. He continued to collect the only non-feudal tax in Western Europe, based on the Danegeld, which the Saxons had originally paid to buy off the Vikings and later to pay for defense against them. Although he allowed the Church to set up its own independent court system in England as it had on the continent, William kept tight control of the elections of bishops, archbishops, and abbots. He saw these men as his ministers and entrusted them with much local power and responsibility. Finally, William used the Anglo Saxon officials, earls and sheriffs to look after the king's interests. Under William I and his son William II these were usually strong nobles who had the independent means to enforce their king's will, but could also be a threat. Later kings used lower nobles who, being dependent on the king for their positions, were both more loyal and less dangerous to the king.
The two centuries after William I’s reign (1066-1087) saw the growth in the power and sophistication of royal government. At the same time, various Saxon democratic practices reasserted themselves and became an inherent part of the Anglo-American tradition of democracy. There was a constant struggle during this period between kings and their barons over their respective rights and obligations. In times of weak kings, the nobles won the upper hand. However, most of England's kings were strong and able to extend royal power.
Henry I (1100-35) started a more efficient treasury system, thanks to the introduction of Arabic numerals and the exchequer, named after the checkered table cloth they used to organize the king's money in rows. The court system also saw advances, with the king adopting the Anglo Saxon belief that such personal crimes as murder, rape, and arson were also crimes against the king and state. Henry used this principle to send his justices throughout the land to try such cases. Henry also married a Saxon princess and, in the process, signed a charter where he promised to rule less harshly in the Norman manner and more in accordance with Saxon rights and customs. This charter would heavily influence the Magna Charta signed a century later.
After the feudal anarchy and civil wars during the reign of the weak Stephen I (1135-55), Henry II (1155-89), one of England's greatest monarchs came to the throne. As a feudal ruler, Henry still had to deal with the privileges and obligations of his noble vassals. However, as king, he claimed certain special rights and privileges to increase his power. Some of Henry's greatest accomplishments were in his legal reforms. Previously, private citizens had to bring charges against criminals, who often prevented such proceedings by intimidating their victims. Even without intimidation, few people wanted to risk bringing cases to court, because they had to pay a severe penalty ( talion) if they lost. Henry changed that by having the state, not private individuals, bring suspects to trial. He also established grand juries whose duty was to gather evidence and submit the names of any likely suspects of crimes. Failure to do this resulted in heavy fines. As a result, more cases were brought to trial, a greater degree of law and order was established, and the king made money from the increased court revenues. The concept of state prosecution of criminals and fact-finding grand juries is still a major part of our legal system going back to Henry II. Ironically, suspects brought to trial demonstrated their guilt or innocence through ordeals, such as by water. However, even if a suspect passed the ordeal but he was still suspected of the crime, the king might exile him from England.
Henry II is also remembered for his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose lands gave him control over one-third of France. However, the Angevin empire, as it is called, was more trouble than it was worth, since Philip II of France, technically Henry’s overlord for his French lands though he was much weaker than the English king, was always trying to stir up trouble and revolts. However, Henry and his older son Richard I, known as “the Lionhearted” (1189-99) for his exploits in the Crusades, held their own against Philip.
Unfortunately, Henry’s younger son, John I (1199-1216), was not. John got into trouble on a number of accounts: losing a quarrel with the Pope, overtaxing England for his war against Philip, and then losing that war. All these problems led to a revolt of the English barons who forced John to sign the Magna Charta in 1215. Based largely on Henry I’s charter a century earlier, this was basically a feudal document, but it put forth the principles that not even the king was above the law and that no free man could be arrested without due process of law and a trial by his peers. This idea of due process of law is still a vital part of our legal system today.
The long reign of John's son Henry III (1216-1272) saw the barons under the leadership of Simon de Montfort controlling the government and usurping many privileges. However, Henry’s son, Edward I (1272-1304), was a strong king who reestablished royal authority over the nobles, conquered Scotland and Wales, developed the Welsh long-bow into the weapon that would rule the battlefields of the Hundred Years War.
Edward I is also remembered for his governmental reforms, and especially the evolution of Parliament. Originally, this was any meeting of the king and his vassals or subjects to talk ( parley), usually over taxes. Since negotiating taxes with each town and shire was cumbersome, Edward called the Model Parliament in 1295. This body consisted of representatives from all three estates. Although later parliaments did not necessarily contain all these elements, in time it came to be the rule that all three estates should be represented.
Parliament became especially important in England for a couple reasons. First of all, England being an island enhanced its trade and the status of the middle class. As a result, the middle class merchants and lower nobility (gentry) were thrown together in the House of Commons. In time, their common interests led to a powerful combination capable of challenging royal power. Secondly, since England was an island, it faced few invasions, giving little need for heavy taxes to pay for expensive armies. This, in turn, left English kings relatively weak, so that, by the 1600's, Parliament would have both the power and the constitutional right (or so it thought) to usurp much of the king's authority and lay the foundations of modern democracy.