Post-classical history

Chapter 3
Politics, Law, and Religion in the Early Middle Ages

Wales and the Marches

Eleventh-century Wales was a collection of small kingdoms in a mountainous country. These were kingdoms without stable borders. They expanded and contracted in accordance with law (the custom of sharing the inheritance between sons) and politics (the ambitions and military fortunes of individual rulers). Although English kings traditionally claimed an overall supremacy here, they had done little to transform that ill-defined overlordship into lasting military and administrative control. At first it looked as though the impetus of the Norman Conquest of England would carry the newcomers right through Wales. The Norman earls of Hereford, Shrewsbury, and Chester were, in effect, licensed to take whatever they could. But after a period of rapid advance in 1067–75, they found their progress impeded by the nature of the terrain. As a result, their colonizing efforts were long confined to the lowlands and river valleys, particularly in the south. Able Welsh princes took advantage of instability in England after 1135 and at the time of Magna Carta to recover the initiative and resume control of lands they had earlier lost. Not until the reign of Edward I was the Norman Conquest of Wales complete. Thus throughout this period Wales was a land of war, a land of castles. Welsh princes and Anglo-Norman marcher lords made war and peace and both therefore enjoyed what later constitutional lawyers would call ‘sovereign’ powers.

For most of this period the conquest was a piecemeal affair, undertaken and carried through by individual Anglo-Norman baronial families: the Clares, the Mortimers, the Lacys, the Braoses. The lands which they conquered were, in effect, ‘private’ lordships, outside the normal framework of English governance. Nonetheless, these families remained subjects of the king of England and occasionally they were reminded of this fact in summary fashion. In 1102 Henry I broke the sons of Roger of Montgomery, earl of Shrewsbury, and dismembered their father’s marcher ‘empire’. In 1208–11 John drove William de Braose to destruction. The groundwork of conquest and colonization was left to the marcher lords, but the overall strategy remained in royal hands. It was, for example, the kings who determined what relations with the native princes should be: a matter which became increasingly vital as some Welsh kingdoms were eliminated and the surviving ones became increasingly consolidated.

By the second half of the twelfth century the rulers of Deheubarth, particularly the Lord Rhys, and of Gwynedd were outstanding. In the thirteenth century two princes of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Great and his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, managed, by force and diplomacy, to bring all the other Welsh dynasties under their authority. Indeed, in the treaty of Montgomery (1267) Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was able to persuade a reluctant English king, Henry III, to acknowledge both his territorial gains and his new title, ‘Prince of Wales’.

But eight years earlier another treaty had sealed the fate of Wales. In 1259 by the treaty of Paris Henry III accepted the loss of most of his Continental possessions. Peace with France meant that for the first time a king of England could, if he wanted to, concentrate his attention on his British neighbours. There followed Edward’s conquest and a massive programme of castle building. By the statute of Wales (1284) the newly acquired lands were divided into shires on the English model: Flint, Anglesey, Merioneth, and Caernarfon. As for Welsh laws and customs, Edward announced: ‘certain of them we have abolished; some we have allowed, some we have corrected, others we have added’. What this meant in effect was that English common law had been introduced into Wales.

There were revolts in 1287 and 1294–5 but the castles proved their worth. Flint, Rhuddlan, Aberystwyth, Builth, Conway, Caernarfon, Criccieth, Harlech, and Beaumaris – resounding names, and resoundingly expensive to build and maintain. This was the high premium Edward paid to insure his conquests against the fire of rebellion.

The contrast between, on the one hand, the piecemeal conquest of the south and east and, on the other, the sudden defeat which overwhelmed the north and west left an enduring mark on the political geography of Wales. The Edwardian conquests were largely retained in Crown hands; the rest remained divided into the numerous large lordships collectively known as the march of Wales. As for Prince Llywelyn, killed in an English trap at Irfon Bridge in 1282, his fate was to become a cult figure for some twentieth-century Welsh nationalists.


In contrast to fragmented Wales, in the eleventh century much of Scotland, in particular the south and east – the wealthiest part – was ruled by one king, the king of the Scots. Whereas the Papacy accepted that Welsh dioceses should come under the authority of Canterbury, it supported the independence of the Scottish Church. Ever since Athelstan’s reign, the king of the Scots had occasionally recognized English overlordship, but that was as far as the connection went – or was likely to go. On the one hand the king of the Scots was too powerful to have much to fear from the kind of ‘private enterprise’ invasions which marked the advance of Anglo-Norman barons into Wales and even Ireland. On the other, his land was too poor and he was generally too distant a figure to be of much interest to the kings of England. Besides, although it might not be too difficult to launch a successful expedition against the Scots, the dual problem of conquering and controlling so remote a country seemed – and probably was – insoluble to kings whose own bases lay in the Thames Valley and further south.

Nor were the Scots obsessed by the problem of the English. Apart from a temporary success when King David (1124–53) took advantage of the civil war of Stephen’s reign to acquire Northumbria (held from 1139 to 1157), the border with England effectively remained where it had been established in the eleventh century. Much more significant was the kingdom’s extension to include the far north and much of the western seaboard (Caithness, Ross, Moray, Argyll, Galloway). The culmination of this expansionist policy came when the king of Norway ceded the Western Isles (treaty of Perth, 1266). Scottish advance here was materially assisted by the stability and continuity of leadership provided by three successive kings: William I (1165–1214), Alexander II (1214–49), and Alexander III (1249–86).

Territorial expansion in the Highlands was matched by internal development in the Lowlands. Here, burghs, abbeys, and cathedrals were founded; castles were built and royal sheriffdoms formed in order to reduce the kingdom to manageable administrative units; royal moneyers began to mint silver pennies (enjoying parity with English sterling) and import duties were collected. The marriages made by its rulers show that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Scotland was increasingly becoming part of a ‘European’ political scene. What was most remarkable about all these developments was that they involved very little war. So long as no English king conceived the unrealistic ambition of conquering Scotland, there was no reason for that to change.

English Government and the King’s Household

The most important component of government was the king himself. His character counted for more than any other single factor – as is obvious from the contrast between Edward I’s reign and the reigns of both his father and son. But naturally the king could not govern alone. Wherever he went he was followed by a great crowd: courtiers, officials, servants, traders, petitioners, and hangers-on of every description.

At the centre of the crowd that followed him was the king’s household. In part this was an elaborate domestic service: cooks, butlers, larderers, grooms, tent-keepers, carters, packhorse drivers, and the bearer of the king’s bed. There were also the men who looked after his hunt, the keepers of the hounds, the horn-blowers, the archers. Then there were the men whose work was political and administrative as well as domestic. Some of them had fairly well-defined functions. The chancellor was responsible for the king’s seal and the chancery clerks. Treasurer and chamberlains looked after the king’s money and valuables. Constables and marshals were in charge of military organization. But the household, like the king, was omnicompetent and any great household officer, the steward for example, was likely to find himself entrusted with essential political and military tasks.

Some of these officials were clerks. Until the 1340s the chancellor and the treasurer always were. But many of them were laymen: the chamberlains, the stewards, the constables, the marshals – as also, at a local level, were the sheriffs. Medieval kings of England did not depend exclusively, or even primarily, upon clerks for the administrative skills necessary to rule a country. Nor did they rely on a group of royal officials whose interests were pitted against the interests of the great landholders, the magnates. On the contrary, the king’s household normally included some of the most powerful barons. Servants in the king’s household, they were also lords of great estates and masters in their own houses. Through their influence the authority of the Crown was carried into the localities. This informal power system was often reinforced by the appointment of members of the household to local offices. Under Rufus, Hamo ‘the steward’ was sheriff of Kent; Urse d’Abetôt was constable of the household and sheriff of Worcester. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries household knights continued to be employed as sheriffs.

Here, in the king’s household, lay the mainspring of government. This is as true of 1279, the year of Edward I’s Household Ordinance, as it is of 1136, the approximate date of the earliest surviving description of the king’s household, the Constitutio domus regis. Moreover there is no reason to believe that the household of the Constitutio was significantly different from William I’s household, or indeed, from Cnut’s household.

Similarly the king’s household was the hub of military organization. It has long been accepted that the armies of Edward I’s reign were essentially ‘the household in arms’. The household cavalry constituted a professional task force capable of responding quickly if trouble blew up unexpectedly. In the event of a major campaign, it could be rapidly expanded. Household knights were often made responsible for mobilizing and commanding large infantry contingents. The household men, the familiares, were paid annual fees and then daily wages according to the number of days they served. This, it used to be thought, was a far cry from the Norman period when armies were basically ‘feudal hosts’, made up of the quotas of knights which tenants-in-chief mustered when summoned to perform their military service to the Crown. But close study of the much more fragmentary evidence for the period around 1100 has demonstrated that not only is it difficult to find the ‘feudal host’ in action, but also that all the essential features of the Edwardian system were already in existence – the retaining fees, the daily wages, the framework for planned expansion, the use of household troops both as garrisons for key castles and as the main field armies (composed of knights and mounted archers), the employment of household knights as commanders of supplementary forces. There is no reason to believe that the tasks which Cnut’s housecarls were called upon to perform were fundamentally different.

For practical purposes there was an upper limit on the size of the royal household in peacetime; transport and catering problems were alone sufficient to see to that. To some extent, forward planning of the royal itinerary helped; when they knew in advance where the household was going to be then merchants could arrange to be there with their wares. But the presence of the king imposed a near-intolerable burden on any district through which he passed. The demands made by the household had a dramatic effect on local foodstocks and prices; it created a situation wide open to abuse. This is how Eadmer, a monk of Canterbury, described the household of William Rufus, a king of whom he disapproved. ‘Those who attended his court made a practice of plundering and destroying everything; they laid waste all the territory through which they passed. Consequently when it became known that the king was coming everyone fled to the woods.’ In Edward I’s reign there is still the same combination of planning and plunder. An official letter announcing that he intended to spend Easter at Nottingham asked that local people should be comforted by being assured that the king would go as fast as he had come.

Thus it was both for political reasons – in order to make his presence felt – and for economic reasons – to make his presence no longer felt – that the king travelled constantly. The sheer size of their dominions meant that in this respect the Angevins had to work harder than their predecessors, though John’s political failures did at least have the effect of easing his travel problems. After 1203 the royal itinerary became increasingly confined to England and, in Edward I’s case, to North Wales as well. After 1289 no king visited Gascony. At the same time the roads leading in and out of London became gradually more important. By 1300 the king’s itinerary was no longer dominated, as John’s had still been, by the restless move from palace to hunting lodge in ‘central Wessex’, the old heartland of the West Saxon kings.

Yet while political and economic considerations made the court mobile, there was another feature of the age which pointed in the opposite direction: the seemingly inexorable development of bureaucracy. Given the practical limitations on household size, what would happen as the king’s secretarial and financial officers grew ever more numerous? Inevitably not all of them could continue to travel everywhere with their lord. Some were bound to settle down in a convenient place. By 1066, indeed, this point had already been reached. There was already a permanent royal treasury at Winchester, a depository for fiscal records as well as for silver, and this required a permanent staff to guard and oversee it. By 1290 there were many more settled officials, both clerks and laymen, in the chancery and exchequer, and they were settled at Westminster, not Winchester. But this bureaucratic growth had not altered the fundamental political facts of life: the king still itinerated; he still took with him a seal, a secretariat, and financial experts – and it was within this mobile group, not at Westminster, that the most important political and administrative decisions were taken. In 1290, as in 1066, the saddle remained the chief seat of government, both in war and in peace. There was still no capital but the king’s highway.

The Power of Patronage

Nor had bureaucratic growth altered the basic fact that the political stability of the realm still depended primarily on the king’s ability to manage the small, but immensely powerful, aristocratic establishment – as is made clear by the events of Henry III’s and Edward II’s reign. On what terms did the tenants-in-chief hold their estates from the king? They were expected – as they had been in Anglo-Saxon England – to serve and aid the king: essentially this meant political service and, in times of war, military service; in certain circumstances they could be asked to give him financial aid. In addition, a tenant-in-chief’s heir had to pay a duty, known as a relief, in order to enter into his inheritance, while if he – or she – were under age then the king took the estates into his custody, to do with them very much as he pleased (subject to certain conventions). In these circumstances the king controlled his ward’s marriage. If there were no direct heirs, then after provision had been made for the widow – whose re-marriage was also subject to crown control – the king could grant the land out again to whomever be pleased. This degree of control over the inheritances and marriages of the wealthiest people in the kingdom meant that the king’s powers of patronage were immense. He not only had offices at his disposal, he also had heirs, heiresses, and widows. Thus, for example, when Richard I gave William Marshal the heiress to the earldom of Pembroke, he, in effect, made William a millionaire overnight. No political leader in the Western world of today has anything remotely approaching the power of patronage in the hands of a medieval king. It is not surprising that the king’s court was the focal point of the whole political system, a turbulent, lively, tense, factious place in which men – and a few women – pushed and jostled each other in desperate attempts to catch the king’s eye. Not surprisingly it was a twelfth-century literary convention to describe a courtier’s life as sheer hell – but standing at the mouth of hell there were hundreds only too keen to enter. In these circumstances patronage was one of the strongest cards in the king’s hand. It mattered how he played it, and a king who played it badly would soon find himself in trouble.

The essential features of this patronage system were already in existence during the reign of William Rufus. This much is clear from the terms of the Coronation Charter issued by Henry I in 1100. It is also clear that the system was still in existence during the reign of Edward I. Magna Carta had clarified it and, to some extent, even modified it. After 1215, for example, baronial reliefs were fixed at a rate of £100. Nonetheless, the laws governing inheritance, wardship, and marriage could still be manipulated to suit a king’s personal predilections, whether it was to provide for his own family, as with Edward I, or to enrich favourites, as with Edward II. What is less clear is whether the system was already there in 1066. Most historians would probably say that it was not. But it is surely significant that Cnut and, probably, Æthelred the Unready were already making promises broadly similar to those contained in the charter of 1100.

Patronage was lucrative. Men offered money in order to obtain what the king had to offer: offices (from the chancellorship down), succession to estates, custody of land, wardship, and marriage – or even nothing more concrete than the king’s goodwill. All of these were to be had at a price, and the price was negotiable. Here was an area in which a king could hope to raise more money by consistently driving harder bargains. In these circumstances any document which told the king how rich his tenants were would naturally be immensely valuable. Domesday Book is just such a record – and it showed that half the value of the whole country was in the hands of fewer than 200 men. By fining these men heavily when they were in political trouble or by offering them what they wanted, though at a price, the king had found a practical method of soaking the rich. Of course the information had to be kept up to date and throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Crown found ways of ensuring that it was. For example, one of the surviving documents produced by Henry II’s administration is the delightfully named ‘Roll of Ladies, boys and girls’. Thus to a hostile observer like Gerald of Wales the king appeared to be ‘a robber permanently on the prowl, always probing, always looking for the weak spot where there is something for him to steal’. Gerald was talking of the position under the Angevins but it may be that Lucy, widowed countess of Chester, offering Henry I 500 marks for the privilege of remaining single for five years, would have concurred. The fact that most of the influential people in the realm were semi-permanently in their debt gave kings a powerful political lever – and one which they regularly employed. In 1295, for example, Edward I used the threat of debt collection to force a group of reluctant magnates to go to Gascony.

The earliest surviving detailed account of royal revenues, the pipe roll of 1129–30, shows just how lucrative patronage could be. In this financial year Henry I is recorded as having collected about £3,600 from offers of this kind. This is about 15 per cent of his recorded revenue and more than he got from taxation. But the arithmetic of the pipe roll tells us a good deal more than this. In 1129–30 the total sum due as a result of offers made in this and previous years was almost £26,000, so only 14 per cent of the amount due was actually collected. William de Pont de l’Arche, for example, had offered 1,000 marks for a chamberlainship and in 1129–30 he paid just 100 marks. This meant that if the king were satisfied with William’s behaviour, then payment of further instalments might be suspended or pardoned. The expectation that the exchequer would not press too hard had the effect of encouraging men to bid highly. But a man who fell out of favour would find that he had to pay up promptly – or get into even worse trouble. This, for example, was the fate which befell William de Braose in John’s reign. In other words, collecting only a small proportion of the amount due was not an indication of chronic government inefficiency but rather of a further refinement of an infinitely flexible system of patronage.

English Royal Revenues

Masterful kings always had their hands in their subjects’ pockets. Edward I was known as Le Roi Coveytous just as William I had ‘loved greediness above all’. At a more abstract level, as early as the twelfth century it was asserted that royal power could be measured in financial terms. In the words of Richard FitzNeal, bishop of London, Treasurer of England, and author of The Dialogue of the Exchequer, a work dating from the 1170s, ‘the power of princes fluctuates according to the ebb and flow of their cash resources’. The pipe roll of 1129–30 – a record of the accounts presented at the exchequer by sheriffs and other officials in that year – shows an exchequer system already working very much along the lines described in The Dialogue. But the financial system itself certainly pre-dated the pipe roll. In broad outline – annual renders made by sheriffs to the treasury – it is an Anglo-Saxon system. In 1066 and 1086 the renders produced by some large royal manors were still paid in kind. By 1129–30 it is clear that a widespread commutation into money rents had taken place. This was in line with general European development. The more the sheriffs’ renders were made in cash, the greater the need for an easily followed but quick method of making calculations in pounds, shillings, and pence. Thus the chequered table cloth (from which the word exchequer is derived) served as a simplified abacus, on which the king’s calculator did sums by moving counters from square to square like a croupier. The earliest reference to the exchequer dates from 1110. Twice a year a group of the most powerful and trusted men in the realm met in order to audit the sheriffs’ accounts. When the king was in Normandy they would meet, as the vice-regal committee ‘at the exchequer’, in the king’s absence. Presumably a similarly composed committee had met for a similar purpose when Cnut was in Denmark.

But this is speculation. It is only when we reach 1129–30 that some degree of precision is possible. Even here, however, we have to be careful. An exchequer record, a pipe roll, tells almost nothing about those sums which were paid into and out of the chamber. Certainly these sums cannot be quantified, though in view of the fact that the chamber was the financial office of the itinerant household, it is likely that they were large. For example it was estimated that by 1187 Henry II had paid 30,000 marks into his Jerusalem bank account, though there is no sign of this money in the pipe rolls of his reign. In the absence of twelfth-century chamber records, it is not easy to estimate total royal revenue. Thus, the low pipe roll totals in the early years of Henry II’s reign may be very largely a reflection of the new king’s preference for chamber finance, a very natural preference for an Angevin prince, all of whose forefathers had managed perfectly well without an exchequer. After all, when it came to minting coins the Angevins introduced Angevin practice into both England and Normandy. But, whatever the difficulties, analysis of the only surviving pipe roll of Henry I’s reign is undoubtedly revealing.

In 1129–30, £22,865 was paid into the treasury. Out of this total almost £12,000 constituted revenue derived from lands held by the Crown. Just under £3,000 came from taxation, nearly all of this (almost £2,500) from the geld or Danegeld, as the old Anglo-Saxon land tax was now called. Another £7,200 can be described as the profits of lordship and jurisdiction: this included about £1,000 from ecclesiastical vacancies; £2,400 from judicial fines; and the £3,600 from offers mentioned earlier. Thus over half the recorded revenue came from land; about a third from lordship and jurisdiction; and only some 13 per cent from taxation. If we compare this with the state of royal revenues in the early years of Edward I’s reign then some significant differences emerge. In very rough terms, land now accounted for about a third of the total; lordship and jurisdiction may well have provided less than 10 per cent, while taxation (including customs duties) accounted for over a half. Land, lordship, and jurisdiction became relatively less important; taxation became much more important. Even allowing for the likelihood that tax revenue in 1129–30 was rather less than usual (because the geld was the only tax levied that year), this broad generalization would still hold.

Though the royal lands were immensely lucrative in 1130, a comparison with Domesday Book suggests that they were already a declining asset. In 1086 the total recorded value of the king’s lands and boroughs was almost £14,000, while by 1129–30 it had gone down to less than £10,700. It seems that the stock of royal lands was dwindling faster than it was being replenished by forfeitures and reversions to the Crown (escheats). Kings had to grant land to powerful men. They did so in order to reward and encourage loyalty, particularly early in their reigns when faced with the problems of disputed succession. This process continued, but was to some extent offset by attempts to manage the royal estates more efficiently. The success of these managerial reforms, begun under Hubert Walter, then continued by John’s and Henry III’s ministers, can be measured by the fact that Edward I was still able to enjoy a revenue from land of some £13,000 a year. (In view of the inflation in the previous 150 years, however, this means that real income from this source was a good deal less than it had been in 1129–30. Equally, £20,000 under Henry I was probably worth more than £40,000 under Edward I.)

The geld, the hide – the unit of land on which the geld was assessed – and the fiscal machinery through which the geld was collected are all further examples of those rights which the Norman kings inherited from the Anglo-Saxons. Even though at two shillings on the hide the geld contributed only 10 per cent of Henry I’s recorded income, it was clearly a valuable royal asset. By 1129–30 it had become an annual tax and one which could occasionally be levied at a higher rate (moreover geld exemptions could be granted as political favours, adding yet another string to the bow of royal patronage). But the geld was levied only twice by Henry II, in 1155–6 and 1161–2. Instead he developed other levies, the aid of knights (scutage: assessed on knights’ fees) and the aid of boroughs and cities (tallage: assessed on a valuation of movable property). By John’s reign, scutages and tallages between them constituted a more or less annual tax which adequately compensated the Crown for the withering away of the geld. But the geld was not quite dead. Under a new name, carucage, and a revised assessment it was revived and levied four times between 1194 and 1220.

By this date, however, the government had discovered a new and altogether more productive form of tax, assessed not on land but on an estimate of a man’s revenues and movable property. Probably based on the ecclesiastical tithe, it was initially used in 1166, 1185, and 1188 for a pious purpose – the financial support of the Holy Land. John certainly levied this tax on movables in 1207, and may have done so in 1203. An account of the 1207 tax survives and the figures which it discloses are astonishing. Levied at the rate of 1/13, it produced no less than £60,000 – a sum far and away in excess of the yield of other taxes. (Yet in 1194 this same tax had been levied at the rate of 1/4 – the heaviest rate in the long history of the tax – in order to contribute to Richard’s ransom.) In the mid-1190s the first national customs system was introduced. These developments suggest that royal revenues reached new high levels during Richard’s and John’s reigns. By 1213–14 John had accumulated some 200,000 marks. But these large accumulations were soon spent. These were years of war, of the Third Crusade and of the defence of the Angevin Empire. John’s final failure in 1214 ushered in a long period of relative peace. Not until 1294 would the English taxpayer once again find himself paying for a major European war.

In the meantime, however, there were two other significant thirteenth-century innovations – the development of taxation of the clergy, and the establishment of a customs system. Since 1199 the Church had been made subject to an income tax imposed by the pope. Initially intended to finance crusades, it was later used for a variety of ‘good causes’ – as defined by the pope. Thus in 1217 Honorius III ordered bishops and prelates to help out the boy-king Henry III. From then on the Church was frequently required to subsidize the king, particularly if he had taken the cross, as Henry III did in 1250 and Edward I did in 1287. In 1291, for example, Edward received no less than 100,000 marks out of the proceeds of a papal crusading tax. By the mid-thirteenth century it had already become clear that the English Church was prepared to give financial aid to the king – though, naturally, assemblies of clergy haggled over the amount and took the opportunity of their meeting to discuss other matters which they felt needed remedying. Hardly surprising then that Henry III should go one step further in 1254 and ask for a clerical grant without first seeking papal consent. This precedent was followed in 1269, and then on three occasions by Edward I (1279/80, 1283, and 1290) in the years before 1294.

The customs duty in Richard’s and John’s reigns had been a war measure; it lapsed when John sought a truce with Philip Augustus in 1206. The importance of the duty on wool exports established in 1275 was that it became a permanent addition to the Crown’s peacetime revenue. Its yield varied according to the fortunes of the wool trade but at the rate agreed in 1275, half a mark (6 s. 8 d.) per sack, it brought in between £8,000 and £13,000 per annum in the years before 1294. These new measures, papal taxation of the English Church and the customs duty on wool, were both related to the presence of Italian mercantile and banking houses in England. On the one hand, it was the ubiquitous Italian businessman that enabled the thirteenth-century Papacy to operate as an international finance corporation. On the other, credit finance came to play an increasingly large part in government. Edward I’s debt to the Ricciardi of Lucca for the years from 1272 to 1294 totalled nearly £400,000; 48 per cent of this debt was repaid out of the customs receipt from a trade in which the Italians were increasingly involved. Kings, of course, had borrowed before. In the 1250s, Henry III owed the Ricciardi over £50,000; in the 1150s, Henry II used loans from a Flemish businessman, William Cade, to finance the making of the Angevin Empire. What was significant in the late thirteenth century was both the scale of the operations and the linkage between credit and customs. Compared with the sums obtainable from these new sources, the amounts to be derived from traditional levies, scutages, tallages, and feudal aids, were hardly worth the trouble of collecting and they gradually fell into disuse.

The Beginnings of Parliament in England

The customs system of 1275 had been granted in Parliament after discussion between the king’s advisers and the merchants. Characteristic of all these taxes was that someone else’s consent was required: either the pope’s, or the merchants’, or the clergy’s, or the country’s. By contrast, land, lordship, and jurisdiction were revenue-producing rights which did not require meetings of influential men to approve their exploitation – indeed all influential men enjoyed similar rights (though on a smaller scale) and presumably took them for granted – so long as they were not abused. Whereas 85 per cent of Henry I’s recorded revenue came from land, lordship, and jurisdiction, they provided less than 40 per cent of Edward I’s. The higher the proportion of crown revenue that came from taxation, the greater was the need for political mechanisms that enabled that consent to be obtained. This is the process known as the growth of representative institutions; in the case of the tax on movables it is the growth of Parliament.

During the long years of freedom from foreign war after 1214 the tax on movables remained an occasional resource of the Crown. War was infrequent and other acceptable justifications for the tax were rare, so consent was only occasionally forthcoming – certainly not as often as Henry III would have liked. But the growing potential of the tax was revealed by the last of the seven levies collected between 1208 and 1293: the assessed yield of the 1/15 of 1290 was over £116,000. How was consent to this extraordinary tax obtained? The king’s advisers would have had to make a case. Presumably, they pointed to the expenses of his recent stay in Gascony (1286–9) and of his future crusade; they may well have pointed out that in the interests of Christian piety he was sacrificing a lucrative source of revenue in deciding to expel the Jews – although by 1290 the Jewish community had been squeezed so hard by royal financial demands that it had little more to give. But to whom did they make the case? They made it to the men who represented ‘the community of the realm’ and, in the first instance, these were the magnates – the sorts of influential men who always had attended major political assemblies, whether Anglo-Saxon, Norman, or Angevin. The assembly of 1290, ‘Parliament’ as it was now called, met from April to July and in its first ten weeks it got through a great deal of business, including some important legislation. In mid-July another group of men arrived, knights of the shire. Less than a week later Parliament was dissolved. Why had the knights been so belatedly summoned to attend? Because the magnates were reluctant to approve the tax. They agreed to it but ‘only insofar as they were entitled to’. Yet they had not been similarly reluctant to deal with other kinds of parliamentary business, judicial, political, legislative. In other words the magnates still adequately represented ‘the community of the realm’ in most fields – but not when taxation was on the agenda. From the late twelfth century onwards, kings had grown accustomed to bargaining with individual shire communities, so it was an obvious step to require these local communities to choose men to speak for them on some of those occasions when the king wanted to summon an assembly to represent the community of the whole realm. Assemblies of magnates were being reinforced in this way from the 1250s onwards and gradually the knights, yeomen, and burgesses who represented shires and boroughs – the Commons – were being accorded a more prominent role. As the proceedings of the Parliament of 1290 make clear, it was above all else the king’s need for taxation which stimulated this development.

Was the process also the result of social change? Was there a thirteenth-century ‘rise of the gentry’ which meant that traditional political institutions had to be reshaped? Did the gentry now count for more in the localities so that if kings wanted their needs widely understood and their taxes efficiently collected they had to offer them a place in the main political forum of the realm? These are difficult questions, so difficult indeed to answer in the affirmative that some historians have argued that, on the contrary, the thirteenth century was a period of crisis for the knightly class. One of the problems is a familiar one: the growing volume of evidence. We know much more about the thirteenth-century gentry than we do about their predecessors. But did Simon de Montfort and his friends court the gentry more assiduously in the period 1258–65 than John and the rebel barons had done in 1212–15? Magna Carta contains clauses which appeal to wider social groups than the barons, but so too does Henry I’s Coronation Charter. To whom was Edward the Confessor appealing when, in 1051, he decided not to collect the heregeld? Neither in the twelfth century nor in Anglo-Saxon times did society consist only of barons and peasants. The sort of men who got themselves chosen to be knights of the shire in the late thirteenth century were exactly the sort of men who always had attended the great political assemblies. True, they had come then in the retinues of the magnates, but it was in their retinues that sensible magnates found their best advisers – and presumably they had listened to them. The knights of the late thirteenth century were not coming to these meetings for the first time; they were simply coming under another guise. It may be that the evidence of political change – the more elaborate representative institutions of the thirteenth century, the larger share of taxation in crown revenue – still has to be set within a framework of underlying social continuity.

Law and Justice in England

From the reign of Henry II onwards, royal judges began to hold local sessions (assizes) so frequently that it becomes possible to speak of the application over almost the entire country of a common body of customary law, the ‘common law’, the custom of the king’s court as described in treatises such as ‘Glanvill’ and ‘Bracton’. The previous system had been one in which, generally speaking, local courts had applied local custom. Kings, of course, had long been held to be responsible for law and order; in particular they were expected to deal with serious offences, the pleas of the Crown, but until a regular, centrally directed machinery of justice was established, their activity in this field could only be sporadic. They intervened when influential people were involved and they launched occasional drives against theft, especially cattle-rustling. In this respect, the Anglo-Saxon system of justice survived the Norman Conquest. The change came in 1166 with the Assize of Clarendon, reinforced in 1176 by the Assize of Northampton. These assizes introduced regular measures for the trial by royal judges of those suspected of serious crimes. At first Henry II’s judges were simply men whom the king trusted – they might be earls, barons, bishops, abbots, or counsellors from the royal household, exactly the sort of people whom earlier kings had sent out on specific commissions of justice or inquiry – the biggest and most famous of such inquiries being the Domesday survey. For men such as these, holding courts of law was just one of the many tasks, administrative, diplomatic, and military, which they carried out on the king’s behalf. But the introduction of frequent circuits meant an ever-increasing burden of judicial work and by the end of the twelfth century we can identify a group of men, most of them laymen, who specialized in legal business, in effect professional judges. There were, of course, lower courts dealing with less serious offences, but the ‘professional’ courts increasingly came to dominate the field. For one thing the lower courts had no authority to innovate, whereas the king could, and did, create new offences. For example the crime of conspiracy was ‘invented’ in 1279 when Edward I ordered the itinerant judges to inquire into confederacies to defeat the ends of justice. Since the king’s courts dealt not only with crime but also with disputes concerning property, they were clearly felt to be performing a useful service. Magna Carta criticized many aspects of royal government, but not this one. Indeed it asked that the king’s judges should visit each shire four times a year, more frequently than was in practice possible.

The judges were men learned in the law; being learned, they naturally responded to shifts in attitudes and ideas prevailing within educated opinion. One such shift was in the direction of a self-consciously rational approach to intellectual problems – an approach typified by Abelard’s dictum: ‘By doubting we come to inquiry, by inquiring we come to perceive the truth.’ When applied to the law, this was a dictum which could have far-reaching implications. For example, if the guilt or innocence of a suspect could not readily be determined, it had for centuries been customary to send him to the ordeal, usually the ordeal of hot iron or the ordeal of water. This system worked well enough while people believed in it – it relied on the same psychological insight as the modern lie-detector – but was highly vulnerable to doubt. If an innocent man came to doubt the ordeal’s efficacy as the means whereby God would prove his innocence, then he was all the more likely to fail the ordeal. Once raised, these doubts could not be stilled. At first they seemed shocking – as when voiced by William Rufus – but eventually they became conventional. Finally, in 1215 Pope Innocent III forbade the participation of priests in the ordeal and, in England at least, this meant that the system came to an abrupt end. After an initial period of confusion, trial by ordeal was replaced by trial by jury: this was a method which had already been used with some success in settling disputes about possession of land. In 1179 Henry II had ordered that, in a case concerning property rights, the defendant might opt for trial by jury rather than trial by battle – the method which had been introduced into England by the Normans and the efficacy of which, like the ordeal, was vulnerable to doubt. But this rule when applied to criminal justice meant that there was a trial only when the accused opted for one. Obviously he came under great pressure. By a statute of 1275 he was condemned to a ‘prisone forte et dure’ until he did opt for trial. In consequence, many men died in prison, but because they had not been convicted, their property was not forfeited to the Crown. For this reason some chose to die rather than risk trial. Not until the eighteenth century was this right to choose taken away.

At first, and particularly in property litigation, juries had been called upon to settle straightforward questions to which they might reasonably be expected to know the answer. But problems arose when more complicated cases came before them and when trial by jury replaced the ordeal. For, unlike God, a jury was not omniscient. So efforts were made to cut through the complexities of any given dispute in order to isolate a specific question which the jury could fairly be expected to decide. But to do this well required specialized knowledge and skill; in other words it needed professional lawyers. And so, in the course of the thirteenth century, a legal profession developed, with its own schools, its own literature, and its own language (law French).

Despite all these changes, in many fundamental respects Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards justice continued to flourish. In the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods, serious offences had been dealt with under a procedure which ended with the guilty party being required to pay compensation to the victim or his family. The new machinery of justice established by the Angevins tended to impose punishment without compensation. In many cases, homicide, wounding, and rape, for example, this was felt to be intolerable, so despite the impression given by writers such as ‘Glanvill’ and ‘Bracton’ who would have us believe that the new principles had effectively displaced the old, it seems that in reality the old procedures survived; they were adapted and grafted on to the new. What this meant was that those who could afford it escaped punishment but paid compensation to the victim or his kin, while those who could not, suffered the consequences.

Church and Religion

Domesday Book suggests that the village priest was usually reckoned to be a member of the peasant community. His church belonged to the local lord. If an estate were divided then the profits of the church which went with that estate might also have to be divided. In many ways, the village priest shared the life-style of the ordinary villager. He was very unlikely to be celibate; indeed, he was probably married and may well have inherited his position from his father. Given this basic situation, one can only admire the temerity of those eleventh-century reformers who aimed to abolish both lay control of the Church and the family life of the clergy. Under papal stimulus, the campaign for reform reached England in 1076. In subsequent decades, it was gradually stepped up and in the long run it even had a kind of success. By the late thirteenth century, married clergy were exceptional. On the other hand, plenty of them – including some of the most powerful – continued to have mistresses. Ranulf Flambard of Durham and Roger of Salisbury had their counterparts almost 200 years later in Walter Langton of Coventry, who was accused of strangling his mistress’s husband, and Robert Burnell, Edward I’s chancellor, whom the king twice tried to have translated from Bath and Wells to Canterbury. As far as lay patronage and family connection were concerned, these two aspects of church life were hardly touched. ‘The Lord deprived bishops of sons, but the devil gave them nephews.’

Yet even the limited success of the campaign against clerical marriage is remarkable – given how ineffective decrees on this subject had been in the 700 years from the fourth century onwards. It may well be linked with the general improvement in education in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. If society at large became more literate then the clergy could more readily be recruited from the laity; they did not have to remain what they had come close to being, a hereditary caste. The more people went to school, the more they learned to know, and some of them to respect, the ancient law of the Church. Certainly there is reason to believe that in thirteenth-century England a higher proportion of the population was celibate than had been in the eleventh century. Quite simply, there were far more people who had taken vows of chastity. Everywhere in Europe monasticism flourished and Britain was no exception. In England, for example, there were some fifty religious houses in 1066 and perhaps 1,000 monks and nuns. By 1216 there were approximately 700 houses and some 13,000 monks, nuns, canons, and canonesses. A century later, the total was nearer 900 houses and 17,500 members of the religious orders. Seen in the context of an overall tripling of the population, these are impressive figures. Even so they fail to make plain the extent to which, throughout Britain, religious life had become diversified and enriched. In the eleventh century, all the houses were Benedictine in type. By the mid-thirteenth century not only were there several hundred Benedictine houses, there were also a number of new orders from which a man or woman could choose – regular canons, Cistercians, Gilbertines (the one peculiarly English order), Templars, Hospitallers, Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Austin friars. Within this framework, almost every conceivable variety of religious life, rural, urban, contemplative, ascetic, active, was now catered for. What is more, most of those who entered the religious life now did so because they chose to. Whereas the old Benedictine houses had recruited their monks largely from the children given by their aristocratic parents to be brought up in the cloister (oblates), from the mid-twelfth century onwards those who entered both the new and the old orders were adults. The Cistercians, who established the new pattern, prohibited entry for anyone under the age of 16 and insisted upon a year’s noviciate. Conscripts had been replaced by volunteers.

During the course of the twelfth century, the English Church established the diocesan and parochial organization under which it was to live for centuries. The last new dioceses to be created were Ely (in 1108) and Carlisle (1133). Dioceses were divided into archdeaconries, and archdeaconries into rural deaneries. In the Norman period, as before, new parishes were created almost at will – the will of the local lord; but thereafter it became much harder. The territorial organization of the Church became, as it were, frozen in its twelfth-century state. This was certainly not because demographic and economic expansion was now levelling off. On the contrary, new settlements continued to be founded and the old ones continued to grow. What was happening was that the development of canon law and of papal jurisdiction was tending to protect innumerable vested interests. The rise of the lawyer, itself the result of change in one sphere of life, made it harder to change things in others. Where this created a real pastoral problem was in the towns. Bishops wrestled with the problem but much of their effort was frustrated by the proprietary interests of patrons, churchmen as well as laymen. The thirteenth century found a solution, but it needed a radical departure, a new form of religious life, to make it possible. This new form was provided by the mendicant orders, the friars – mobile missionaries whose international organization cut clean through diocesan and parochial boundaries. The first friars to come to England were the Dominicans. They arrived in 1221 and headed for Oxford. Three years later, the Franciscans arrived; their earliest friaries were in Canterbury, London, and Oxford. The Carmelites and Austin friars arrived in the 1240s. By 1300 the friars had founded some 150 houses in England, more than 20 in Scotland and nine in Wales.

The coming of the friars, like the growth of canon law, is a movement which reflects one of the basic circumstances of the Church throughout Britain. Although its growing material wealth was firmly rooted in English, Welsh, or Scottish soil, in its spiritual, intellectual, and corporate life as a Church it was increasingly a part of Latin Christendom. This was particularly true of the period from the late eleventh century onwards, when both Latin and French became more widely used than before in England as well as in Scotland and Wales. Particularly important was the Gregorian reform movement and the associated development of canon law and papal jurisdiction over the entire Latin Church. The reformers’ demand for libertas ecclesiae, the privileged freedom of the Church, undeniably had some dramatic consequences; but in the end it turned out to be unobtainable. While liberty was linked with privilege and the continued possession of great corporate wealth, kings and other secular patrons could not afford to renounce some of their crucial powers, in particular the power to appoint, even though by the thirteenth century they were having to work through the legal machinery of the Roman curia in order to obtain their ends. The fact was that the spiritual weapons at the Church’s disposal, excommunication and interdict, were ultimately insufficient to deter the secular power. They tended, moreover, to become blunted through over-use. In areas which really mattered to the lay world, not just patronage but also war, tournaments, and business practice, the heroic days of the Gregorian reform gradually, in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, gave way to a period of accommodation. But where the reformers did succeed was in translating the theory of papal headship of the Church into the fact of a centralized system of government. To a quite remarkable extent, the clergy learned to do what the pope told them to do. Thus when Pope Innocent III, in pursuit of his quarrel with King John, laid an interdict on England, the clergy obeyed. For six years, from 1208 to 1214, the church doors were closed and the laity were locked out; they were denied the sacrament of the altar, solemnization of marriages, burial in consecrated ground. Even when the pope, beginning in 1199, ordered the taxation of the Church, the clergy grumbled but paid up. From 1228 onwards we can trace a continuous series of resident collectors in England; they bore the title of nuncio and almost all of them were Italians. Here too there was accommodation. It seemed realistic to win the king of England’s approval and so, by 1300, it was the king who received the lion’s share of the proceeds.

Throughout this period, Catholic Christianity remained the unchallenged religion. It was taken for granted. When the churches were closed for six years there was hardly a murmur of public protest – but neither was there an upsurge of interest in alternative religions. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, heresy was no more of a threat than it had been in the eleventh: in this respect Britain was different from many parts of Europe. Throughout this period a few non-Christians – Jews – lived in towns as far north as Newcastle and as far west as Bristol (i.e. not in the less urbanized Scotland and Wales), but their position was always precarious, at times painfully so, and in 1290 they were expelled. Most Christians rejoiced.

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