Sunday, March 27, 2011

History of England Part Three

It’s really hard to like the Normans.  They were very efficient people, sure, but in many ways they were not the kind of management you would want in charge.

At the beginning there were only about 8000 of them, but after 1066 they were able to march about putting down assorted malcontents until there was nothing left of the old Saxon ruling class.  Then this small crew of French speaking guys just took the whole country, with about a million citizens, and divided it up.

This was the feudal system.  For good service under William the Conqueror a knight would get a patch of land.  Complete with peasants, oh how convenient!  The peasants “owed” the knight a certain amount of their labor and crops, and have essentially no rights, not even the right to go elsewhere.  In theory the knight in return protects them from bandits, wild critters and other knights.  The knight owes military service to the next guy up, usually a baron or duke, who in turn owes his allegiance to the king.

When it worked the system was sort of like how the Mafia divided up New York City.  When it didn’t work it was like Mafia gang wars, except that warring knights usually took it out on the other guy’s peasants.  Peasants are easy targets, and you were destroying the economic base of the guy you were unhappy with.

This lead to the creation of the classic castles of England, places to hide out until troubles passed you by.  The Tower of London is one of the better preserved Norman castles, with many later additions of course.

To more efficiently extract wealth from their new conquests the Normans did the first real census of England, the so called Domesday Book.  It lists the farms, villages, mills, etc of all of England.  Wouldn’t want to let anybody skimp on their taxes after all.

Even back in Saxon times the country had been divided up for administrative purposes.  Roughly equal sized chunks were called Shares, or as we now call them, Shires.  Yorkshire, Berkshire etc.  The official in charge of each was a Shire Reeve, since shortened to Sheriff.

The Normans fought among themselves a great deal.  This and the fact that they still held large areas of land back in France had unfortunate effects.  Various sons of the kings were always scheming, the King of France was always trying to stir things up, and eventually England got sucked into four hundred years of fighting in France.  For which in the end they got nothing.

The Norman kings also had a difficult relationship with the church.  At first they were all for it, and in fact established most of the great cathedrals and monasteries of England.  Later the church and crown were at odds over the usual stuff, how much money and power the church should have.  Among other things this lead to the famous murder of Thomas Beckett by King Henry II.  He had to do some serious penance after that little misunderstanding.

It was actually the Norman kings who shaped England into a real nation.

They established centralized taxation, which is still called the Exchequer after the large checkerboard like table on which they counted the money.

They established the current boundaries of the UK by conquering Wales, Northern Ireland and, sorta, Scotland.

They built the great cathedrals and castles for which the country is famous.

Since literacy was now relatively common we get a much clearer picture of the Norman kings.  They were energetic, impetuous, mostly bad managers of money.  One of them, King John, annoyed his leading barons so greatly that they made him accept a list of demands called the Great Charter, or Magna Carta.

Rather than some stirring statement of universal rights this was mostly a list of obligations of the king to his most powerful supporting nobility.  Brief mention was also made of some minimal obligations of major nobility to lesser gentry.  Peasants got no mention at all.  Your average Norman knight might consider that a peasant had the right to request that he be lashed on one side of the back versus the other, but not much more.  Later generations extrapolated the Magna Carta to be a bit more inclusive.

Norman kings are a little like Star Trek movies, roughly alternating good and bad.  Consider Edwards One through Three.

Edward I was a heck of a king.  An efficient administrator he fought simultaneously in France and up in Scotland.  He was called the Hammer of the Scots, and I would even now not mention him around Scotsmen.  He also conquered the Welch and in honor of this had his son named Prince of Wales, a title still reserved for the heir to the throne.

Said heir was Edward II.  Things did not turn out well for him.  He was supposed to marry the Maid of Norway but her ship sank on the way over.  He instead got a French dame named Isabella.  Edward II was certainly a bad administrator and probably gay in an era that did not accept this.  He was always bestowing public favors on young French dudes, and in private….

Isabella of France.   She seems like a nice young lady....
Oh, and did I mention that Isabella is known to history as The She Wolf of France?  Not somebody you wanted to cross.  She and her ex pat boyfriend had Eddie II kidnapped, imprisoned in Berkeley Castle and dispatched in the most gruesome royal murder in English history.  Don’t look it up.

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