Preview: History of England
History of England
Posts on the making of Britain, adapted from "A Student's History of England", Samuel Rawson Gardiner, 1916.
The Death of Godwine 1053
After William had departed
, Englishmen became discontented at King Edward's
increasing favor to the Norman strangers. In 1052 Godwine
and his sons—Swegen only excepted—returned from exile. They sailed up the Thames and landed at Southwark. The foreigners hastily fled, and Edward was unable to resist the popular feeling.
Godwine was restored to his earldom, and an Englishman, Stigand, was made Archbishop of Canterbury in the place of Robert of Jumièges, who escaped to the Continent. As it was the law of the Church that a bishop once appointed could not be deposed except by the ecclesiastical authorities, offence was in this way given to the Pope. Godwine did not long outlive his restoration. He was struck down by apoplexy at the king's table in 1053.
Harold, who, after Swegen's death, was his eldest son, succeeded to his earldom of Wessex, and practically managed the affairs of the kingdom in Eadward's name.
Harold was a brave and energetic man, but Edward preferred his brother Tostig, and on the death of Siward appointed him Earl of North-humberland. A little later Gyrth, another brother of Harold, became Earl of East Anglia, together with Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire, and a fourth brother, Leofwine, Earl of a district formed of the eastern shires on either side of the Thames. All the richest and most thickly populated part of England was governed by Harold and his brothers. Mercia was the only large earldom not under their rule. It was now under Ælfgar, the son of Leofric, who had lately died.(image)
Duke William and the Norman Church
An Englishman, who saw much of Duke William
in after-life, declared that, severe as he was, he was mild to good men who loved God.
The Church was in his days assuming a new place in Europe. The monastic revival which had originated at Cluny had led to a revival of the Papacy. In 1049, for the first time, a Pope, Leo IX., traveled through Western Europe, holding councils and inflicting punishments upon the married clergy and upon priests who took arms and shed blood. With this improvement in discipline came a voluntary turning of the better clergy to an ascetic life, and increased devotion was accompanied, as it always was in the middle ages, with an increase of learning. William, who by the strength of his will brought peace into the state, also brought men of devotion and learning into the high places of the Church. His chief confidant was Lanfranc, an Italian who had taken refuge in the abbey of Bec, and, having become its prior, had made it the central school of Normandy and the parts around.
With the improvement of learning came the improvement of art, and churches arose in Normandy, as in other parts of Western Europe, which still preserved the old round arch derived from the Romans, though both the arches themselves and the columns on which they were borne were lighter and more graceful than the heavy work which had hitherto been employed. Of all this Englishmen as yet knew nothing. They went on in their old ways, cut off from the European influences of the time. It was no wonder that Edward yearned after the splendor and the culture of the land in which he had been brought up, or even that, in defiance of English law, he now promised to Duke William the succession to the English crown. (image)
Visit of Duke William. 1051
In Godwine's absence
, in 1051 King Edward the Confessor
received a visit from the Duke of the Normans, William, the bastard son of Duke Robert and the daughter of a tanner of Falaise.
Robert was a son of Richard II., and William was thus the grandson of the brother of Edward's mother, Emma. Such a relationship gave him no title whatever to the English throne, as Emma was not descended from the English kings, and as, even if she had been, no one could be lawfully king in England who was not chosen by the Witenagemot
. Edward, however, had no children or brothers, and though he had no right to give away the crown, he now promised William that he should succeed him.
William, indeed, was just the man to attract one whose character was as weak as Edward's. Since he received the dukedom he had beaten down the opposition of a fierce and discontented nobility at Val-ès-dunes (1047
). From that day peace and order prevailed in Normandy. Law in Normandy did not come as in England from the traditions of the shire-moot
or the Witenagemot, where men met to consult together. It was the Duke's law, and if the Duke was a strong man he kept peace in the land. If he was a weak man, the lords fought against one another and plundered and oppressed the poor. William was strong and wily, and it was this combination of strength and wiliness which enabled him to bear down all opposition.(image)
The Banishment of Godwine. 1051
At last, in 1051
, the strife between King Edward
and the Earl broke out openly. Edward's brother-in-law, Eustace, Count of Boulogne, visited England. On his return his men made a disturbance at Dover, and in the riot which ensued some of the townsmen as well as some of his own men were slain.
Edward called on Godwine, in whose earldom Dover was, to punish the townsmen. Godwine refused, and Edward summoned him to Gloucester to account for his refusal. He came attended by an armed host, but Leofric and Siward, who were jealous of Godwine's power, came with their armed followers to support the king. Leofric mediated, and it was arranged that the
question should be settled at a Witenagemot to be held in London.
In the end Godwine was outlawed and banished with all his family. Swegen went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and died on the way back.(image)
Edward the Confessor
|The Seal of Edward the Confessor|
The English were tired of foreign rulers. 'All folk chose Edward king.'
Edward, the son of Æthelred and the brother of the murdered Ælfred, though an Englishman on his father's side, was also the son of the Norman Emma, and had been brought up in Normandy from his childhood. The Normans were now men of French speech, and they were more polite and cultivated than Englishmen.
Edward filled his court with Normans. He disliked the roughness of the English, but instead of attempting to improve them as the great Ælfred had formerly done, he stood entirely aloof from them. The name of the Confessor by which he was afterwards known was given him on account of his piety, but his piety was not of that sort which is associated with active usefulness. He was fond of hunting, but was not active in any other way, and he left others to govern rather than himself.
For some years the real governor of England was Earl Godwine, who kept his own earldom of Wessex, and managed to procure other smaller earldoms for his sons. As the Mercia over which Leofric ruled was only the north-western part of the old kingdom, and as Siward had enough to do to keep the fierce men of North-humberland in order, Godwine had as yet no competitor to fear. In 1045
he became the king's father-in-law by the marriage of Edward with his daughter, Eadgyth. Edward, however, did his best for his Norman favourites, and appointed one of them, Robert of Jumièges, to the bishopric of London, and afterwards raised him to the Archbishopric of Canterbury.
Between Godwine and the Normans there was no goodwill, and though Godwine was himself of fair repute, his eldest son, Swegen, a young man of brutal nature, alienated the goodwill of his countrymen by seducing the Abbess of Leominster, and by murdering his cousin Beorn. Godwine, in his blind family affection, clung to his wicked son and insisted on his being allowed to retain his earldom.(image)
The Sons of Cnut. 1035—1042
died in 1035
. Godwine and the West Saxons chose Harthacnut, the son of Cnut and Emma to take his father's place, whilst the north and centre, headed by Leofwine's son, Leofric,
Earl of the Mercians, chose Harold, the son of Cnut by an earlier wife or concubine. Godwine perhaps hoped that Harthacnut would make the West Saxon earldom the centre of the empire which had been his father's. Cnut's empire was, however, breaking up. The Norwegians chose Magnus, a king of their own race, and Harthacnut remained in Denmark to defend it against the attacks of Magnus.
In Normandy there were two English Ethelings, Ælfred and Edward
, the sons of Æthelred by Emma, who seem to have thought that the absence of Harthacnut gave them a chance of returning to England. Ælfred landed, but was seized by Harold. He was blinded with such
cruelty that he died. His death was, truly or falsely, attributed to Godwine. As Harthacnut still remained in Denmark, the West Saxons deposed him and gave themselves to Harold, since which time England has never been divided.
Harold died, and Harthacnut came at last to England to claim the crown. He brought with him a Danish fleet, and with his sailors and his house-carls he ruled England as a conquered land. He raised a Danegeld to satisfy his men, and sent his house-carls to force the people to pay the heavy tax. Two of them were killed at Worcester, and he burnt Worcester to the ground. In 1042
he died 'as he stood at his drink' at a bridal.
had thus made himself master of a great empire, and yet, Dane as he was, though he treated Englishmen and Danes as equals, he gave his special favour to Englishmen. He restored, as men said, the laws of Eadgar—that is to say, he kept peace and restored order as in the days of Eadgar. He
reverenced monks, and once as he was rowing on the waters of the fens, he heard the monks of Ely singing. He bade the boatmen row him to the shore that he might listen to the song of praise and prayer.
He even went on a pilgrimage to Rome, to humble himself in that city which contained the burial places of the Apostles Peter and Paul. From Rome he sent a letter to his subjects. 'I have vowed to God,' he wrote, 'to live a right life in all things; to rule justly and piously my realms and subjects, and to administer just judgment to all. If heretofore I have done aught beyond what is just, through headiness or negligence of youth, I am ready, with God's help, to amend it utterly.' With Cnut these were not mere words.
It is not likely that there is any truth in the story how his flattering courtiers told him to sit by the sea-shore and bade the inflowing tide refrain from wetting his feet, and how when the waves rose over the spot on which his chair was placed he refused to wear his crown again, because that honour belonged to God alone, the true Ruler of the world. Yet the story would not have been invented except of one who was believed to have been clothed with real humility.(image)
Cnut and the Earldoms. 1016—1035
Cnut was one of those rulers who, like the Emperor Augustus, shrink from no barbarity in gaining power, but when once they have acquired it exercise their authority with moderation and gentleness.
He began by outlawing or putting to death men whom he considered dangerous, but when this had once been done he ruled as a thoroughly English king of the best type. The Danes who had hitherto fought for him had come not as settlers, but as an army, and soon after Eadmund's death he sent most of them home, retaining a force, variously stated as 3,000 or 6,000, warriors known as his House-carls (House-men
), who formed a small standing army depending entirely on himself. They were not enough to keep down a general rising of the whole of England, but they were quite enough to prevent any single great man from rebelling against him.
Cnut therefore was, what Æthelred had wished to be, really master of his kingdom. Under him ruled the ealdormen, who from this time were known as Earls, from the Danish title of Jarl, and of these Earls the principal were the three who governed Mercia, North-humberland, and Wessex, the last named now including the old kingdoms of Kent and Sussex. There was a fourth in East Anglia, but the limits of this earldom varied from time to time, and
there were sometimes other earldoms set up in the neighbouring shires, whereas the first-named three remained as they were for some time after Cnut's death.
It is characteristic of Cnut that the one of the Earls to whom he gave his greatest confidence was Godwine, an Englishman, who was Earl of the West Saxons. Another Englishman, Leofwine, became Earl of the Mercians. A Dane obtained the earldom of the North-humbrians, but the land was barbarous, and its Earls were frequently murdered. Sometimes there was one Earl of the whole territory, sometimes two. It was not till after the end of Cnut's reign that Siward became Earl of Deira, and at a later time of all North-humberland as far as the Tweed. The descendants of two of these Earls, Godwine and Leofwine, leave their mark on the history for some time to come.
Beyond the Tweed Malcolm, king of the Scots, ruled. He defeated the Northumbrians at Carham, and Cnut ceded Lothian to him, either doing so for the first time or repeating the act of Eadgar, if the story of Eadgar's cession is true. At all events the king of the Scots from this time ruled as far south as the Tweed, and acknowledged Cnut's superiority. Cnut also became king of Denmark by his brother's death, and king of Norway by conquest. He entered into friendly relations with Richard II., Duke of the Normans, by marrying his sister Emma, the widow of Æthelred.
Æthelred Restored. 1014—1016
|The Martyrdom of St. Edmund|
Svend died suddenly as he was riding at the head of his troops to the attack of the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds. A legend soon arose as to the manner of his death. St. Edmund himself, the East Anglian king Eadmund who had once been martyred by Danes, now appeared, it was said, to protect the monastery founded in his honour. 'Help, fellow soldiers!' cried Svend, as he caught sight of the saint. 'St. Edmund is coming to slay me.' St. Edmund, we are told, ran his spear through the body of the aggressor, and
Svend died that night in torments. His Danish warriors chose his son Cnut king of England.
The English Witenagemot sent for Æthelred to return. At last, in 1016
, Æthelred died before he had conquered Cnut or Cnut conquered him.
Æthelred's eldest son—not the son of Emma—Eadmund Ironside, succeeded him. He did all that could be done to restore the English kingship by his vigour. In a single year he fought six battles; but the treachery of the ealdormen was not at an end, and at Assandun (? Ashington
), in Essex, he was completely overthrown. He and Cnut agreed to divide the kingdom, but before the end of the year the heroic Eadmund died, and Cnut the Dane became king of England without a rival.(image)
Svend's Conquest 1002—1013
Æthelred, having failed to buy off the Danes, tried to murder them. In 1002
, on St. Brice's Day, there was a general massacre of all the Danes—not of the old inhabitants of Danish blood who had settled in Ælfred's time—but of the new-comers. Svend returned to avenge his countrymen. Æthelred had in an earlier part of his reign levied a land-tax known as the Danegeld to pay off the Danes—the first instance of a general tax in England. He now called on all the shires to furnish ships for a fleet; but he could not trust his ealdormen. Some of the stories told of these times may be exaggerated, and some may be merely idle tales, but we know enough to be sure that England was
a kingdom divided against itself. Svend, ravaging as he went, beat down resistance everywhere.
the Danes seized Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, and offered to set him free if he would pay a ransom for his life. He refused to do so, lest he should have to wring money from the poor in order to pay it. The drunken Danes pelted him with bones till one of the number clave his skull with an axe. He was soon counted as a martyr. Long afterwards one of the most famous of his successors, the Norman Lanfranc, doubted whether he was really a martyr, as he had not died for the faith. 'He that dies for righteousness,' answered the gentle Anselm, 'dies for the faith,' and to this day the name of Ælfheah is retained as St. Alphege in the list of English saints.
Svend appeared no longer as a plunderer but as a conqueror. First the old Danish districts of the north and east, and then the Anglo-Saxon realm of Ælfred—Mercia and Wessex—submitted to him to avoid destruction. In 1013
Æthelred fled to Normandy.(image)
Political Contrast between Normandy and England
The causes which were making the English thegnhood a military aristocracy acted with still greater force in Normandy. The tillers of the soil, sprung from the old inhabitants of the land, were kept by their Norman lords in even harsher bondage than the English serfs. The Norman warriors held their land by military service, each one being bound to fight for his lord, and the lord in turn being bound, together with his dependents, to fight for a higher lord, and all at last for the Duke himself.
In England, though, in theory, the relations between the king and his ealdormen were not very different from those existing between the Norman duke and his immediate vassals, the connection between them was far looser. The kingdom as a whole had no general unity. The king could not control the ealdormen, and the ealdormen could not control the king. Even when ealdormen, bishops, and thegns met in the Witenagemot
they could not speak in the name of the nation. A nation in any true sense hardly existed at all, and they were not chosen as representatives of any part of it. Each one stood for himself, and it was only natural that men who during the greater part of the year were ruling in their own districts like little kings should think more of keeping up their own almost independent power at home than of the common interests of all England, which they had to consider when they met—and that for a few days only at a time—in the Witenagemot. Æthelred at least was not the man to keep them united.(image)
The Norman Dukes, 912—1002
The country which lies on both sides of the lower course of the Seine formed, at the beginning of the tenth century, part of the dominions of Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, who had inherited so much of the dominions of Charles the Great as lay west of a line roughly drawn from the Scheldt to the Mediterranean through the lower course of the Rhone. Danes and Norwegians, known on the Continent as Normans, plundered Charles's dominions as they had plundered England, and at last settled in them as they had settled in parts of England.
Charles the Simple ceded to their leader, Hrolf, a territory of which the capital was Rouen, and which became known as Normandy—the land of the Normans. Hrolf became the first Duke of the Normans, but his men were fierce and rugged, and for some time their southern neighbours scornfully called him and his descendants Dukes of the Pirates. In process of time a change took place which affected both Normandy and other countries as well. The West Frankish kings were descended from Charles the Great; but they had failed to defend their subjects from the Normans, and they thereby lost hold upon their people.
One of their dependent nobles, the Duke of the French, whose chief city, Paris, formed a bulwark against the Normans advancing up the Seine, grew more powerful than themselves. At the same time the Normans were becoming more and more French in their speech and customs. At last an alliance was made between Hugh Capet, the son of Hugh the Great, Duke of the French, and Richard the Fearless, Duke of the Normans. The race of Charles the Great was dethroned, and Hugh became king of the French. In name he was king over all the territory which had been governed by Charles the Simple. In reality that happened in France which Æthelred had been trying to prevent in England. Hugh ruled directly over his own duchy of France, a patch of land of which Paris was the capital.
The great vassals of the crown, who answered to the English ealdormen, only obeyed him when it was their interest to do so. The most
powerful of these vassals was the Duke of the Normans. In 1002
the duke was Richard II.—the Good—the son of Richard the Fearless. In that year Æthelred, who was a widower, married Richard's sister, Emma. It was the beginning of a connection with Normandy which never ceased till a Norman duke made himself by conquest king of the English.(image)
The Return of the Danes, 984.
Æthelred, now a boy of ten, became king in 979
. The epithet the Unready, which is usually assigned to him, is a mistranslation of a word which properly means the Rede-less, or the man without counsel. He was entirely without the qualities which befit a king. Eadmund had kept the great chieftains in subordination to himself because he was a successful leader. Eadgar had kept them in subordination because he treated them with respect. Æthelred could neither lead nor show respect. He was always picking quarrels when he ought to have been making peace, and always making peace when he ought to have been fighting. What he tried to do was to lessen the power of the great ealdormen, and bring the whole country more directly under his own authority.
he drove out Ælfric, the Ealdorman of the Mercians. In 988
Dunstan died, and Æthelred had no longer a wise adviser by his side.
It would have been difficult for Æthelred to overpower the ealdormen even if he had had no other enemies to deal with. Unluckily for him, new swarms of Danes and Norwegians had already appeared in England. They began by plundering the country, without attempting to settle in it. In 991
Brihtnoth, Ealdorman of the East Saxons, was defeated and slain by them at Maldon. Æthelred could think of no better counsel than to pay them 10,000l.
, a sum of money which was then of much greater value than it is now, to abstain from plundering. It was not necessarily a bad thing to do.
One of the greatest of the kings of the Germans, Henry the Fowler, had paid money for a truce to barbarians whom he was not strong enough to fight. But when the truce had been bought Henry took care to make himself strong enough to destroy them when they came again. Æthelred was never ready to fight the Danes and Norwegians at any time. In 994
Olaf Trygvasson, who had been driven from the kingship of Norway, and Svend, who had been driven from the kingship of Denmark, joined forces to attack London. The London citizens fought better than the English king, and the two chieftains failed to take the town. 'They went thence, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning, and harrying, and in man-slaying, as in Essex, and in Kent, and in Sussex, and in Hampshire. And at last they took their horses and rode as far as they could, and did unspeakable evil.'
The plunderers were now known as 'the army,' moving about where they would. Æthelred this time
gave them 16,000.
He got rid of Olaf, who sailed away and was slain by his enemies, but he could not permanently get rid of Svend. Svend, about the year 1000
, recovered his kingship in Denmark, and was more formidable than he had been before. Plunderings went on as usual, and Æthelred had no resource but to pay money to the plunderers to buy a short respite. He then looked across the sea for an ally, and hoped to find one by connecting himself with the Duke of the Normans.(image)
Eadward the Martyr 975—979
Eadgar died in 975
, leaving two boys, Eadward and Æthelred.
On his death a quarrel broke out amongst the ealdormen, some declaring for the succession of Eadward and others for the succession of Æthelred.
The political quarrel was complicated by an ecclesiastical quarrel. The supporters of Eadward were the friends of the secular clergy; the supporters of Æthelred were the friends of the monks. Dunstan, with his usual moderation, gave his voice for the eldest son, and Eadward was chosen king and crowned. Not only had he a strong party opposed to him, but he had a dissatisfied step-mother in Ælfthryth, the mother of Æthelred, whilst his own mother, who had probably been married to Eadgar without full marriage rites, had been long since dead.
After reigning for four years Eadward was
murdered near Corfe by some of the opposite party, and, as was commonly supposed, by his step-mother's directions.
Food and Drink and Medieval England
|Drinking Glass in Medieval England|
In a great house at meal-time boards were brought forward and placed on tressels. Bread was to be had in plenty, and salt butter. Meat too, in winter, was always salted, as turnips and other roots upon which cattle are now fed in winter were wholly unknown, and it was therefore necessary to kill large numbers of sheep and oxen when the cold weather set in.
There were dishes, but neither plates nor forks. Each man took the meat in his fingers and either bit off a piece or cut it off with a knife. The master of the house sat at the head of the table, and the lady handed round the drink, and afterwards sat down by her husband's side. She, however, with any other ladies who might be present, soon departed to the chamber which was their own apartment. The men continued drinking long. The cups or
glasses which they used were often made with the bottoms rounded so as to force the guests to keep them in their hands till they were empty. The usual drink was mead, that is to say, fermented honey, or ale brewed from malt alone, as hops were not introduced till many centuries later.
In wealthy houses imported wine was to be had. English wine was not unknown, but it was
so sour that it had to be sweetened with honey. It was held to be disgraceful to leave the company as long as the drinking lasted, and drunkenness and quarrels were not unfrequent.
Wandering minstrels who could play and sing or tell stories were always welcome, especially if they were jugglers as well, and could amuse the company by throwing knives in the air and catching them as they fell, or could dance on their hands with their legs in the air.
When the feast was over, the guests and dependents slept on the floor on rugs or straw, each man taking care to hang his weapons close to his head on the wall, to defend himself in case of an attack by robbers in the night. The lord retired to his chamber, whilst the unmarried ladies occupied bowers, or small rooms, each with a separate door opening on to the yard. Their only beds were bags of straw. Neither men nor women wore night-dresses of any kind, but if they took off their clothes at all, wrapped themselves in rugs
Domestic Life in 11th Century England
Drinking Glass in Medieval EnglandThe cultivated land was surrounded either by wood or by pasture and open commons. Every cottager kept his hive of bees, to produce the honey which was then used as we now use sugar, and drove his swine into the woods to fatten on the acorns and beech nuts which strewed the ground in the autumn. Sheep and cattle were fed on the pastures, and horses were so abundant that when the Danish pirates landed they found it easy to set every man on horseback. Yet neither the Danes nor the English ever learnt to fight on horseback. They rode to battle, but as soon as they approached the enemy they dismounted to fight on foot. The huts of the villagers clustered round the house of the lord. His abode was built in a yard surrounded for protection by a mound and fence, whilst very great men often established themselves in burhs, surrounded by earthworks, either of their own raising or the work of earlier times. Its principal feature was the hall, in which the whole family with the guests and the thegns of the lord met for their meals. The walls were covered with curtains worked in patterns of bright colours. The fire was lighted on the hearth, a broad stone in the middle, over which was a hole in the roof through which the smoke of the hall escaped. The windows were narrow, and were either unclosed holes in the wall, or covered with oiled linen which would admit a certain amount of light. In a great house at meal-time boards were brought forward and placed on tressels. Bread was to be had in plenty, and salt butter. Meat too, in winter, was always salted, as turnips and other roots upon which cattle are now fed in winter were wholly unknown, and it was therefore necessary to kill large numbers of sheep and oxen when the cold weather set in. There were dishes, but neither plates nor forks. Each man took the meat in his fingers and either bit off a piece or cut it off with a knife. The master of the house sat at the head of the table, and the lady handed round the drink, and afterwards sat down by her husband's side. She, however, with any other ladies who might be present, soon departed to the chamber which was their own apartment.The men continued drinking long. The cups or glasses which they used were often made with the bottoms rounded so as to force the guests to keep them in their hands till they were empty. The usual drink was mead, that is to say, fermented honey, or ale brewed from malt alone, as hops were not introduced till many centuries later. In wealthy houses imported wine was to be had. English wine was not unknown, but it was so sour that it had to be sweetened with honey. It was held to be disgraceful to leave the company as long as the drinking lasted, and drunkenness and quarrels were not unfrequent. Wandering minstrels who could play and sing or tell stories were always welcome, especially if they were jugglers as well, and could amuse the company by throwing knives in the air and catching them as they fell, or could dance on their hands with their legs in the air.When the feast was over, the guests and dependents slept on the floor on rugs or straw, each man taking care to hang his weapons close to his head on the wall, to defend himself in case of an attack by robbers in the night. The lord retired to his chamber, whilst the unmarried ladies occupied bowers, or small rooms, each with a separate door opening on to the yard. Their only beds were bags of straw.Neither men nor women wore night-dresses of any kind, but if they took off their clothes at all, wrapped themselves in rugs[...]
The Ealdormen and the Witenagemot
During the long fight with the Danes commanders were needed who could lead the forces of more than a single shire. Before the end of Eadred's reign there were ealdormen who ruled over many shires. One of them for instance, Æthelstan, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and of
the shires immediately to the west of East Anglia, was so powerful that he was popularly known as the Half-King. Such ealdormen had great influence in their own districts, and they also were very powerful about the king.
The king could not perform any important act without the consent of the Witenagemot, which was made up of three classes—the Ealdormen, the Bishops, and the greater Thegns. When a king died the Witenagemot chose his successor out of the kingly family; its members appeared as witnesses whenever the king 'booked' land to any one; and it even, on rare occasions, deposed a king who was unfit for his post. In
the days of a great warrior king like Eadward or Eadmund, members of the Witenagemot were but instruments in his hands, but if a weak king came upon the throne, each member usually took his own way and pursued his own interest rather than that of the king and kingdom.(image)
Whilst the hundred-moot
decayed, the folk-moot continued to flourish under a new name, as the shire-moot.
This moot was still attended by the freemen of the shire though the thegns were more numerous and the simple freemen less numerous than they had once been.
Still the continued existence of the shire-moot kept up the custom of self-government more than anything else in England. The ordeals were witnessed, the weregild inflicted, and rights to land adjudged, not by an officer of the king, but by the landowners of the shire assembled for the purpose. These meetings were ordinarily presided over by the ealdorman, who appeared as the military commander and the official head of the shire, and by the bishop, who represented the Church.
Another most important personage was the sheriff, or shire-reeve, whose business it was to see that the king had all his rights, to preside over the shire-moot when it sat as a judicial court, and to take care that its sentences were put in execution.
English Towns and Shires in the Middle Ages
The towns had grown up in various ways. Some were of old Roman foundation, such as Lincoln and Gloucester. Others, like Nottingham and Bristol, had come into existence since the English settlement. Others again gathered round monasteries, like Bury St. Edmunds and Peterborough. The
inhabitants met to consult about their own affairs, sometimes in dependence on a lord. Where there was no lord they held a court which was composed in the same way as the hundred-moots
outside. The townsmen had the right of holding a market. Every sale had to take place in the presence of witnesses who could prove, if called upon to do so, that the sale had really taken place, and markets were therefore usually to be found in towns, because it was there that witnesses could most easily be found.
Shires, which were divisions larger than the hundreds, and smaller than the larger kingdoms, originated in various ways. In the south, and on the east coast as far north as the Wash, they were either old kingdoms like Kent and Essex, or settlements forming part of old kingdoms, as Norfolk (the north folk) formed part of East Anglia, and Dorset or Somerset, the lands of the Dorsætan or the Somersætan, formed part of the kingdom of Wessex. In the centre and north they were of more recent origin, and were probably formed as those parts of England were gradually reconquered from the Danes. The fact that most of these shires are named from towns—as Derbyshire from Derby, and Warwickshire from Warwick—shows that they came into existence after towns had become of importance.
Whilst the hundred-moot
decayed, the folk-moot continued to flourish under a new name, as the shire-moot. This moot was still attended by the freemen of the shire though the thegns were more numerous and the simple freemen less numerous than they had once been. Still the continued existence of the shire-moot kept up the custom of self-government more than anything else in England. The ordeals were witnessed, the weregild inflicted, and rights to land adjudged, not by an officer of the king, but by the landowners of the shire assembled for the purpose. These meetings were ordinarily presided over by the ealdorman, who appeared as the military commander and the official head of the shire, and by the bishop, who represented the Church. Another most important personage was the sheriff, or shire-reeve, whose business it was to see that the king had all his rights, to preside over the shire-moot when it sat as a judicial court, and to take care that its sentences were put in execution.(image)
The Hundred-moot and the Lord's Court
In another way the condition of the peasants was altered for the worse by the growth of the king's power. In former days land was held as 'folkland,' granted by the people at the original conquest, passing to the kinsmen of the holder if he died without children. Afterwards the clergy introduced a system by which the owner could grant the 'bookland,' held by book or charter, setting at nought the claim of his kinsmen, and in order to give validity to the arrangement, obtained the consent of the king and his Witenagemot. In time, the king and the Witenagemot granted charters in other cases, and the new 'bookland' to a great extent superseded the old 'folkland,' accompanied by a grant of the right of holding special courts.
In this manner the old hundred-moots became neglected, people seeking for justice in the courts of the lords. Yet those who lived on the lord's land attended his court, appeared as compurgators, and directed the ordeal just as they had once done in the hundred-moot.(image)
Conversion of Freemen into Serfs in Medieval England
It is impossible to give a certain account of the changes which passed over the English freemen, but there can be little doubt that a process had been for some time going on which converted them into bondmen, and that this process was greatly accelerated by the Danish wars.
When a district was being plundered the peasant holders of the strips of village land suffered most, and needed the protection of the neighboring thegn, who was better skilled in war than themselves, and this protection they could only obtain on condition of becoming bondmen themselves—that is to say, of giving certain days in the week to work on the special estate of the lord. A bondman differed both from a slave and from a modern farmer. Though he was bound to the soil and could not go away if he wished to do so, yet he could not be sold as though he were a slave; nor, on the other hand, could he, like a farmer, be turned out of his holding so long as he fulfilled his obligation of cultivating his lord's demesne. The lord was almost invariably a thegn, either of the king or of some superior thegn, and there thus arose in England, as there arose about the same time on the Continent, a chain of personal relationships.
The king was no longer merely the head of the whole people. He was the personal lord of his own thegns, and they again were the lords of other thegns. The serfs cultivated their lands, and thereby set them free to fight for the king on behalf of the whole nation. It seems at first sight as if the English people had fallen into a worse condition. An organization, partly military and partly servile, was substituted for an organization of free men. Yet only in this way could the whole of England be amalgamated. The nation gained in unity what it lost in freedom.(image)
Growth of the King's Power in the 10th Century
The long struggle with the Danes could not fail to leave its mark upon English society. The history of the changes which took place is difficult to trace; in the first place because our information is scanty, in the second because things happened in one part of the country which did not happen in another. Yet there were two changes which were widely felt: the growth of the king's authority, and the acceleration of the process which was reducing to bondage the ceorl, or simple freeman.
In the early days of the English conquest the kings and other great men had around them their war-bands, composed of gesiths or thegns, personally attached to themselves, and ready, if need were, to die on their lord's behalf. Very early these thegns were rewarded by grants of land on condition of continuing military service. Every extension of the king's power over fresh territory made their services more important. It had always been difficult to bring together the fyrd, or general army of the freemen, even of a small district, and it was quite impossible to bring together the fyrd of a kingdom reaching from the Channel to the Firth of Forth. Ælfred's division of the fyrd into two parts, one to fight and the other to stay at home, may have served when all the fighting had to be done in the western part of Wessex. Æthelstan or Eadmund could not possibly make even half of the men of Devonshire or Essex fight in his battles north of the Humber.
The kings therefore had to rely more and more upon their thegns, who in turn had thegns of their own whom they could bring with them; and thus was formed an army ready for military service in any part of the kingdom. A king who could command such an army was even more powerful than one who could command the whole of the forces of a smaller territory.(image)
The Cession of Lothian
It is said that Eadgar was once rowed by six kings on the river Dee. The story, though probably untrue, sets forth his power not only over his own immediate subjects but over the whole island. His title of Peaceful shows that at least he lived on good terms with his neighbours.
There is reason to believe that he was able to do this because he followed out the policy of Eadmund in singling out the king of Scots as the ruler whom it was most worth his while to conciliate. Eadmund had given over Strathclyde to one king of Scots. Eadgar, it is said—and probably with truth—gave over Lothian to another. Lothian was then the name of the whole of the northern part of Bernicia stretching from the Cheviots to the Forth. In Eadred's time the Scots had occupied Eadwinesburh (Edinburgh
), the northern border fortress of Bernicia, and after this the land to the south of that fortress must have been difficult to defend against them.
It is therefore likely that the story is true that Eadgar ceded Lothian to Kenneth, who was then king of the Scots, especially as it would account for the peaceful character of his reign. Kenneth in accepting the gift no doubt engaged to be faithful to Eadgar, though it is impossible to say what was the exact nature of his obligation.
It is of more importance that a Celtic king ruled thenceforward over an
English people as well as over his own Celtic Scots, and that ultimately his descendants became more English than Celtic in character, through the attraction exercised upon them by their English subjects.(image)
Eadgar and Dunstan. 959—975
Eadgar was known as the Peaceful King. He had the advantage, which Eadwig had not, of having the Church on his side. He maintained order, with the help of Dunstan as his principal adviser. Not long after his accession Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury. His policy was that of a man who knows that he cannot do everything and is content to do what he can.
The Danes were to keep their own laws, and not to have English laws forced upon them. The great ealdormen were to be conciliated, not to be repressed. Everything was to be done to raise the standard of morality and knowledge. Foreign teachers were brought in to set up schools. More than this Dunstan did not attempt. It is true that in his time an effort was
made to found monasteries, which should be filled with monks living after the stricter rule of which the example had been set at Cluny, but the man who did most to establish monasteries again in England was not Dunstan, but Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester.
Æthelwold, however, was not content with founding monasteries. He also drove out the secular canons from his own cathedral of Winchester and filled their places with monks. His example was followed by Oswald, Bishop of Worcester. Dunstan did not introduce monks even into his own cathedrals at Worcester and Canterbury. As far as it is now possible to understand the matter, the change, though it provoked great hostility, was for the better. The secular canons were often married, connected with the laity of the neighbourhood, and living an easy life. The monks were celibate, living according to a strict rule, and conforming themselves to what, according to the standard of the age, was the highest ideal of religion. By a life of complete self-denial they were able to act as examples to a generation which needed teaching by example more than by word.
How completely monasticism was associated with learning is shown by the fact that the monks now established at Worcester took up the work of continuing the Chronicle which had been begun under Ælfred(image)
In its eagerness to set up a pure standard of morality, the Church had made rules against the marriage of even distant relations. Eadwig offended against these rules by marrying his kinswoman, Ælfgifu. A quarrel arose on this account between Dunstan and the young king, and Dunstan was driven into banishment. Such a quarrel was sure to weaken the king, because the support of the bishops was usually given to him, for the sake of the maintenance of peace and order. The dispute came at a bad time, because there was also a quarrel among the ealdormen and other great men. At last the ealdormen of the north and centre of England revolted and set up the king's brother, Eadgar, to be king of all England north of the Thames. Upon this, Oda, taking courage, declared Eadwig and his young wife to be separated as too near of kin, and even seized her and had her carried beyond sea.
Eadwig died, and Eadgar succeeded to the whole kingdom(image)