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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Short, Very Clever, Very Good, 25 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Kindle Edition)
The Very Short Introduction series needs no introduction. They are concise, informative, well-researched, sensibly priced and a pleasure to read. Medieval Britain by John Gillingham and Ralph Griffiths is no exception, if anything it is even more exceptional than others in the series. Starting with 1066 and all that, they reveal that when William the Conqueror (mere Duke William of Normandy in those days) was crowned King of England on Christmas Day the shouts of acclamation alarmed the Norman guards who panicked and set fire to the neighbouring houses which led to chaos inside and outside Westminster Abbey. The king himself was trembling but remained in the Abbey.

William was born and died in Normandy where his Viking ancestors had settled. Despite defeating Harold and forcing the surrender of Winchester and London his position was tenuous and there were risings against Norman rule every year from 1067 to 1070. William was illiterate and failed to master the English language. French thus became the lingua franca of the new ruling class. In addition to this cultural alienation, by 1086 there were only four surviving English lords of any account and more than 4200 English thegns had been replaced by 200 Norman barons. In 1070 William deposed some English bishops and refused to appoint any other English prelates in their place. As the ruler of England and Normandy William spent time in both places with his focus centred on the continent. He died in in Normandy in 1087 and was buried in Caen.

In his final years William was in conflict with his eldest son Robert who succeeded him as Duke of Normandy. England was bequeathed to his younger son William Rufus. The latter was opposed by the great barons and magnates who wanted to reunite England and Normandy which Rufus resisted until he consolidated his power in England. He then laid claim to Normandy buying support with English silver. When Pope Urban 11 urged people to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, Robert pawned Normandy to Rufus for 10,000 marks. Rufus's reputation was one of extravagance and skepticism. He refused to appoint bishops and abbots so he could help himself to the Church's revenues. When he appointed Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury he became embroiled in the Investiture controversy which arose out of the Gregorian Reforms. It was a battle of wills between the Papacy and secular rulers as to who had absolute jurisdiction over spiritual appointments. Rufus won the battle, claiming three bishoprics and 12 abbeys when Anselm left the country but soon afterward died in a hunting accident and was succeeded by his brother Henry. Robert invaded from Normandy but Rufus's court circle remained loyal to Henry and Robert was bought off with a 2000 pounds annual pension.

Medieval government was centred on the king and his household. The latter consisted of a large number of servants of the king with some, such as the chancellor and treasurer responsible for the king's seals and king's money respectively. Among those involved in the household were the most powerful barons, owners of great estates and masters of their own houses. They – and knights of the shire – were employed to carry the authority of the Crown into the localities. In addition to civil administration the king's household was 'the hub of the military organisation', maintained on retaining fees. The king himself traveled constantly and maintained his position by force of personality and patronage. "No political leader in the Western world today has anything remotely approaching the power of patronage in the hands of a medieval king'. Yet kings were limitless in their greed. A monk from Canterbury recorded members of the court of William Rufus, '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'.

The king found new ways of raising revenue, the more so as the value of land began to decline. At the end of the twelfth century the government started raising tax on a man's revenues and movable property. During the thirteenth century it became the practice to levy clerical taxes without seeking papal consent. The importance of the wool trade was seen in the levying of customs duties which gradually replaced traditional levies, scutages, tallages and feudal aids, which fell into disuse. To raise levies the king had to make a case to 'the community of the realm' which was known as Parliament by 1290. Traditional legal tests such as trial by ordeal were queried by William Rufus amongst others and ended in 1215, immediately after Pope Innocent 111 forbade the participation of priests in the ordeal. Trial by ordeal was replaced by trial by jury. Innocent was less successful in his quarrel with King John which led to the closure of all churches between 1208 and 1214. While initially clerical taxes were collected by the Papacy by 1300 it was the king who received the lion's share of the proceeds.

Many thirteenth century villagers were better off than their predecessors at the time of the Domesday Book. They were described as the free, the servile and the poor. Many were obliged to pay their lords by means of labour services but their situation changed when the Black Death reduced England's population by one third at a stroke. Rents were forced down, wages and the standard of living rose and many peasants were able to lease plots for their own economic benefit. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was easily put down but the out-dated nature of feudal society was exposed. The conquest of Wales, the establishment of overlordship in Scotland and Ireland created a sense of national identity but the hundred years' war between England and France laid the foundations for long term problems. This excellent book has revived this reviewer's interest medieval history and receives a five star rating.
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