Medieval France and England I

Highlights of Patrick McGoohan’s charming portrayal of King Edward “The LongShanks” in Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’..

The English ownership of lands in what is now France began with Stamping Billy, William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy and king of England, whose claim to the English throne by inheritance may have been thin – he was a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor – but was a lot stronger than that of Harold Godwinson, who had no blood claim at all but was merely a brother-in-law of the late king. William the Norman’s conquest of England was a lot easier than he may have expected: in one great battle, Hastings in 1066, Harold was killed and with him died Anglo-Saxon England. William was faced with opposition all over the country, particularly in the north and in East Anglia, but all these revolts were local and uncoordinated, and William was able to put them down, stripping the ringleaders of their lands and awarding them to his Norman vassals. By the 1070s, the old English aristocracy had been virtually wiped out, English churchmen were being replaced by Normans, castles had been built all over the country and, secure within their walls, French-speaking Normans ruled over Old English-speaking Saxons. By the time of the completion of the Domesday Book in 1086, only two Anglo-Saxons are named as having holdings of any significance. It was the greatest upheaval in English society, law and religion since the Roman withdrawal.

Now the ruling classes held lands on both sides of the Channel, which was fine as long as their feudal overlord was the same person in England as he was in Normandy, as was the case until William I’s death in 1087. Then his eldest son Robert became duke of Normandy, while his third son – the second had been killed in a hunting accident – became king of England as William II. Now the great magnates had a problem, for when William and Robert were opposed, as they often were, cleaving to one lord meant alienating the other, a situation not resolved until Robert went crusading financed by money advanced by William against the stewardship of Normandy. William Rufus never married and nowhere in the chronicles is there any mention of mistresses or bastard children, but by the time he died in 1100, to be succeeded by his brother, the Conqueror’s fourth son, Henry I, he had added Maine and much of the Vexin – that area between Rouen and Paris – to his territories.

Henry was no great soldier, but he did manage to take Normandy from his brother Robert, now returned from crusade, and he did manage to govern England and Normandy for thirty-five years, avoiding revolt by a judicious mixture of terror, reward and shrewd financial management. Although Henry had numerous illegitimate children, he failed to produce a male heir to survive him, and attempts to persuade the barons to accept his daughter Matilda as his successor as queen regnant failed spectacularly. The great men of the kingdom might have accepted Matilda, who was the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor and hence usually referred to as ‘the Empress’, but they were not going to accept her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou. Instead, they awarded the throne to Stephen of Blois, duke of Normandy, a nephew of Henry I and grandson of the Conqueror through his daughter Adela – and confusingly also married to a Matilda, this time of Boulogne. The result was a prolonged period of instability and civil war, only resolved when it was agreed in the Treaty of Westminster in 1153 that Stephen should be succeeded on his death by Henry, the son of the empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou.

Henry II came to the English throne in 1154 and is mostly remembered for his disputes with Thomas Becket, one-time chancellor of England and subsequently archbishop of Canterbury. These disputes included the question of ‘criminous clerks’, or persons in holy orders who committed civil offences and could only be tried by an ecclesiastical court which could not impose the death penalty (Henry thought they should be defrocked and handed over for trial by the civil administration); the appointment of bishops; Becket’s feudal duty to provide men-at-arms or cash in lieu for the king’s military adventures; and Becket’s objections to the crowning of Henry’s son and heir, also a Henry, during his father’s lifetime, the only such occurrence in English history. Although Becket may well have deserved all he got, and certainly seems to have gone out of his way to provoke his own assassination, it was probably not at the king’s instigation but due to the killers’ misunderstanding of the latter’s wishes – although to this day Canterbury Cathedral continues to attract tourists happy to view the site of the murder.

Henry was, in fact, already enormously rich and a great landowner when he came to the throne. Duke of Normandy from 1150 and count of Anjou from his father’s death in 1151, he married in 1152 the fabulously wealthy Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine and countess of Poitiers, who had inherited both lands and titles in her own right from her father, who had no sons. Eleanor had married the future king Louis VII of France when she was fifteen, but after fifteen years the marriage was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, although the real reason was presumably because she had produced only two daughters and no sons. Henry married her a mere two months after the annulment, which cannot have pleased the king of France, who nevertheless must have considered the chances of remarrying and bearing sons worth the loss of Aquitaine and Poitiers to the English.

By the time of Henry II’s death in 1189, he had added Brittany to Normandy and Aquitaine as his domains in France, was the accepted overlord of Scotland and Ireland, and ruled a vast area of lands that stretched from John O’Groats to the Pyrenees. France was little more than the area around what is now the Île-de-France, with the virtually independent duchies of Burgundy to the south and Artois to the north. Henry said himself that he ruled by ‘force of will and hard riding’, for in an age without instant communications and mass media, medieval kings had to be seen and had to move around their lands to enforce the law and keep over-mighty subjects in check. In the thirty-five years of his reign, Henry spent twenty-one of them in his continental possessions, for it was there that he was threatened, rather than in a united England which was now mainly a source of revenue. A mere twenty years later, nearly all of Henry’s empire would be lost, and it was the memory of that empire that would provide one of the provocations for the Hundred Years War.

Henry II’s intention was that his eldest son, also Henry, would become king of England, while his second surviving son, Richard, would inherit his mother’s lands and titles in Aquitaine and Poitiers. When Prince Henry died in 1183, the king assumed that, as Richard was now the heir apparent, Aquitaine would pass to his third son, John. But Richard, having learnt his trade as a soldier subduing rebellious barons there, had no intention of giving up Aquitaine, and family quarrels, culminating in an invasion of England by Richard supported by the French king, Philip II, in 1189, forced Henry to make a humiliating peace shortly before he died, to be succeeded as king by the thirty-two-year-old Richard.

Every little boy playing with his wooden sword storming imaginary castles sees himself as Richard the Lionheart, the great warrior king of England and chivalrous knight par excellence. His slaughter of prisoners taken at Acre in 1191 did not detract from the contemporary view of him as the epitome of knightly conduct – after all, the prisoners were not Christians. Certainly, Richard was personally brave and a competent general, well educated by the standards of the time, a patron of the arts and especially of musicians, and a reasonable composer and singer of songs himself. He spent little time in England, however, concentrating on putting down rebellion – including that of his brother John – and embarking on a crusade which, while it failed to capture Jerusalem, did take the whole of the coastal strip from Tyre in Lebanon to Jaffa (in modern Israel) and captured Cyprus, which was to prove very useful as a mounting base for military operations both then and since. Coming back from his crusade, he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria, sold on to the Holy Roman Emperor, and held prisoner for a year while a ‘king’s ransom’ of 100,000 marks was raised to free him. A mark was eight ounces of silver, so the ransom was roughly equivalent to around £2.6 million today (using the silver standard), raised in the main by a 25 per cent tax on all rents and on the value of all moveable property, both in England and in Normandy – and that from a total population of around three million.

Richard showed little interest in the administration of his empire, but was fortunate in his choice of men to run it for him, particularly in Hubert Walter, King’s Justiciar and archbishop of Canterbury, who was not only a thorough and highly competent administrator but, unusually for the time, no more than moderately corrupt. Walter had accompanied the crusading army to Acre when bishop of Salisbury and found conditions in the camp of the army execrable, with a complete lack of sanitation and a breakdown in the commissariat leading to soldiers and officers dying of disease or starvation. He swiftly got a grip of the situation, organized a proper administrative machinery to provide rations and clean water, and insisted on such measures as dug latrines and the prevention of the pollution of wells, paying for sentries on water sources out of his own pocket. When King Richard arrived at Acre, the morale and efficiency of the army had improved markedly, and Walter was marked out in the king’s eyes as a man who could get things done.

During Richard’s absence on crusade and then in prison, the French had made considerable inroads into the English domains on the continent, and from 1194 Richard spent most of his time in Europe recovering the lost lands and castles, and building new defence works – notably Château Gaillard, which still looms 300 feet above the River Seine – to protect them. Then, at a militarily insignificant skirmish at Châlus, twenty miles south-west of Limoges, Richard sustained a wound from a crossbow bolt which went septic and from which he died on 6 April 1199, aged forty-two. As his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre was childless, he was succeeded by his brother John.

John has not been treated kindly by history, but it is difficult to see how this could have been otherwise: he was a younger son who rebelled against his father; sided with the French in an invasion of England; was a spectacular failure as governor of Ireland, where he managed to alienate both the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman lords who were carving out lands for themselves in England’s Wild West; attempted to usurp his brother’s throne; and spent a large part of his reign in opposition to his barons. His succession was accepted in England and Normandy, but not in Anjou, Maine or Touraine, where the local lords announced that they recognized John’s nephew, Arthur, duke of Brittany, as their overlord. As Arthur was twelve years old in 1199, he would be unlikely to interfere with the magnates’ governance of their fiefs as they wished, and, as the only legitimate grandson of Henry II in the male line, he was inevitably going to find himself cast as a pawn. He had been a ward of Richard I’s, had spent time at the French court, and had done homage to the French king, and to John, for Anjou, Maine and Brittany.

Then, in what seemed a shrewd and advantageous move, John put aside his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, and married another Isabella, this time of Angoulême. The second Isabella had lands that lay between Normandy and Aquitaine which would be a useful addition to English France. There was, however, a snag. The lady had previously been engaged to marry one Hugh of Lusignan, who objected to being deprived of his fiancée (and, presumably, of the lands that she would bring with her) and appealed to King Philip of France. Philip, seizing the chance to discommode the English king, summoned John to appear before him, and, when John refused, in April 1200 he declared all John’s continental fiefs forfeit.

In what was to be his only successful military campaign, John recovered the disputed territories and captured Arthur. The young duke disappeared into an English prison in Falaise, may or may not have been mutilated on the orders of John, was transferred to Rouen, and was never seen again, although the legends vary: some say he was killed by John personally and his body thrown in the Seine, others that he escaped and stood ready to reappear in Brittany when the time was ripe. This, anyway, was John’s last chance to retain his lands in France, for in 1204 the French king declared the dukedom of Normandy forfeit and subsumed into the crown lands of France, the exception being the Channel Islands, which remain British to this day.

The tide of war now turned against the English and John lost all his French territories except Poitou – and that was on the verge of surrender, only rescued by an expedition in 1206. From now on, John – his nickname now ‘Softsword’ because of his military reverses rather than ‘Lackland’ from his lack of patrimony as a younger son – put all his energies into raising the wherewithal to recover his lost lands. This meant that he spent longer in England than any previous ruler since the Norman Conquest, and also meant increased and increasing taxation, leading to more trouble with his barons, a breakdown in relations between church and state, a papal interdict on England and the excommunication of John personally, civil war, the signing of Magna Carta, invasion and civil war again.

When John died in 1216, his infant son, Henry III, inherited a kingdom divided by war, with rebellious barons in the north and the French dauphin – later Louis VIII of France, who had landed in England in May 1216 and was touted by some as king rather than John – in the south. History has been harsh to Henry III too, but with rather less cause than to his father. Fortunately, with the death of John, much of the impetus of the barons’ revolt was defused, and Louis was viewed as a foreign usurper rather than as an alternative king. There were sufficient good men in the Midlands to back young Henry, and, after the Battle of Lincoln and a sea battle off Sandwich in 1217, the French claimant withdrew, helped on his way by a hefty bribe.

Like his father, Henry tried to rule as an autocrat and, like his father, he fell out with his magnates as a result. He had, however, the sense to realize that he could not rule alone, and, by accepting his father’s Magna Carta and, albeit under pressure, dismissing the large number of grasping relations of his French wife who had flocked to England to make their fortune now that the Holy Land, reconquered by the Muslims, was no longer an option, he was able to avoid being deposed. He too was no soldier, and in the Treaty of Paris in 1259 he gave up his claim to Normandy, Anjou and Maine and retained only Aquitaine, but as a vassal of the French king to whom he had to pay homage. Despite all this, he remained king for fifty-six years. Although the latter stages of his reign were again marred by rebellion and civil war, he did greatly improve the administrative machinery of government as well as promote Gothic architecture – his greatest artistic endeavour being the building of Westminster Abbey as a shrine to Edward the Confessor – and he did leave behind him a reasonably contented and more or less united kingdom, and an adult son who would begin to establish the military basis for a recovery of England’s lost territories.

Historical revisionism is not confined to the wars of the twentieth century, and Edward I has come in for a good deal of it from some modern writers. On the positive side, all agree that he was tall, athletic and handsome, a good soldier and genuinely in love with his wife, Eleanor of Castile, which was unusual when royal marriages were contracted for political and dynastic reasons regardless of the personal preferences of the individuals involved. To his detriment, he took up arms against his father during the civil wars with the barons, changed sides at least twice, and was accused of breaking solemn promises and – even after having returned to his allegiance and when in command of the royalist forces at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 – of duplicity in the cornering of the rebel army and the death of their leader, Simon de Montfort, eighth earl of Leicester. This latter charge refers to Edward’s flying the banners of captured nobles either to give the impression that they had changed sides or to convince de Montfort that his rebel troops had the royalists surrounded. That would seem a perfectly legitimate ruse de guerre, although the behaviour of another turncoat, Roger Mortimer, who is alleged to have killed de Montfort, cut off his head and genitals, and then sent the package to his own wife as a souvenir, would have been regarded as bad form even then.

Mortimer also killed a senior rebel commander, Sir Hugh Despenser, at the same battle, a matter that would resurface half a century later. Additionally, Edward had a vile temper, expelled the Jews from England in 1290 and profited thereby, and dealt with any opposition from the pope by fining his representatives in England.

Most of the criticism of Edward relates to his time as the heir, and contemporary chroniclers are less strident when writing about his reign as king – but then denigrating a prince is one thing, opposing an anointed king quite another. The probable truth is that Edward was no more self-seeking and avaricious than any other great lord of the time, and less than many. In the West of the early twenty-first century, we like to think that personal integrity and unselfishness are vital in the conduct of our daily lives, and most of us would put, or at least try to put, country and the common good before self. But this is not the norm in today’s Third World, and it was not the norm in the medieval world. Then it would have seemed very odd indeed not to put the interests of one’s own family before all else. We should beware of judging the past by the standards of the present.


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