A brief history of the Norman Conquest
This period was marked by:
• a struggle between the centralising power of the king and the growing challenge from the leading barons;
• a considerable development of trade and towns, which helped to disintegrate the feudal system.
The gradual character of the Conquest and the support of the Church enabled William the Conqueror (1066-87) to establish a strong centralised state which was in sharp contrast to the anarchy of political feudalism prevailing on the Continent. The Anglo-Saxon system of shires was revived, and a royal officer was placed at the head of each; besides, William prevented the creation of great baronies independent of the royal power. He also established the fiscal basis of the state by ordering a detailed survey of property value in every shire to be made (the Domesday Book, 1086-87).
The process of strengthening the power of the state was continued by William’s son Henry I (1100-35) and especially by Henry II (1154-89), who ascended the throne after thirty years of anarchy (the War of Succession, 1135-54). He ruled over a vast empire comprising England, Normandy and a larger part of France than that controlled by the king of France. (cf.Fig.5.) He restored the royal rights, tightened the control over sheriffs and tried to get all courts under the royal control (he failed with ecclesiastical courts – cf. his conflict with Thomas Becket). Henry also started the English conquest of Ireland, which was never fully completed.
Henry’s sons were weak kings: Richard I (Lion Heart, 1189-99) because he spent most of his reign fighting in Palestine (in the Third Crusade) and in France; and John (Lackland, 1199-1216) because his misrule alienated his barons: in 1215, they forced John to grant them the Magna Carta (Great Charter of Liberties), which limited the royal power and laid the foundations for the later Parliamentary monarchy.
Edward I (1272-1307), as able a monarch as Henry II, ascended the throne after another civil war (1264-66). He will always be remembered for summoning the Model Parliament (1295), called so because it contained representatives of the three estates of Barons, Clergy and Commons (i.e. all the elements of a future parliament). Edward conquered north Wales (1285), but failed to conquer Scotland: the Scottish kingdom kept its independence from England until 1714.
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