06 Jul Economy
The United Kingdom has a fiercely independent, developed, and international trading economy that was at the forefront of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. The country emerged from World War II as a military victor but with a debilitated manufacturing sector. Postwar recovery was relatively slow, and it took nearly 40 years, with additional stimulation after 1973 from membership in the European Economic Community (ultimately succeeded by the European Union [EU]), for the British economy to improve its competitiveness significantly. Economic growth rates in the 1990s compared favourably with those of other top industrial countries. Manufacturing’s contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) has declined to about one-fifth of the total, with services providing the source of greatest growth. The United Kingdom’s chief trading ties have shifted from its former empire to other members of the EU, which account for more than half its trade in tangible goods. The United States is a major investment and trading partner, and Japan has become a significant investor in local production. American and Japanese companies often choose the United Kingdom as their European base. In addition, other fast-developing East Asian countries with export-oriented economies include the United Kingdom’s open market among their important outlets.
During the 1980s the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher pursued the privatization, or denationalization, of publicly owned corporations that had been nationalized by previous governments. Privatization, accompanied by widespread labour unrest, resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the coal-mining and heavy industrial sectors. Although there was some improvement in the standard of living nationally, in general there was greater prosperity in the South East, including London, than in the heavily industrialized regions of the West Midlands, northern England, Clydeside, and Belfast, whose economies suffered during the 1980s. During the 1980s and ’90s, income disparity also increased. Unemployment and inflation rates were gradually reduced but remained high until the late 1990s. The country’s role as a major world financial centre remained a source of economic strength. Moreover, its exploitation of offshore natural gas since 1967 and oil since 1975 in the North Sea has reduced dependence on coal and imported oil and provided a further economic boost.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
The United Kingdom is unusual, even among western European countries, in the small proportion of its employed population (about 2 percent) engaged in agriculture. With commercial intensification of yields and a high level of mechanization, supported initially by national policy and subsequently by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU, the output of some agricultural products has exceeded demand. Employment in agriculture has declined gradually, and, with the introduction of policies to achieve reduction of surpluses, the trend is likely to continue. Efforts have been made to create alternative employment opportunities in rural areas, some of which are remote from towns. The land area used for agriculture (about three-quarters of the total) has also declined, and the arable share has fallen in favour of pasture.
Official agricultural policy conforms to the CAP and has aimed to improve productivity, to ensure stable markets, to provide producers a fair standard of living, and to guarantee consumers regular food supplies at reasonable prices. To achieve these aims, the CAP provides a system of minimum prices for domestic goods and levies on imports to support domestic prices. Exports are encouraged by subsidies that make up the difference between the world market price and the EU price. For a few products, particularly beef and sheep, there are additional payments made directly to producers. More recent policies have included milk quotas, land set-asides (to compensate farmers for taking land out of agricultural use), and reliance on the price mechanism as a regulator.
The most important farm crops are wheat, barley, oats, sugar beets, potatoes, and rapeseed. While significant proportions of wheat, barley, and rapeseed provide animal feed, much of the remainder is processed for human consumption through flour milling (wheat), malting and distilling (barley), and the production of vegetable oil (rapeseed). The main livestock products derive from cattle and calves, sheep and lambs, pigs, and poultry. The United Kingdom has achieved a high level of self-sufficiency in the main agricultural products except for sugar and cheese.
About one-tenth of the United Kingdom’s land area is devoted to productive forestry. The government-supported Forestry Commission manages almost half of these woodlands, and the rest are in private hands. Domestic timber production supplies less than one-fifth of the United Kingdom’s demand. The majority of new plantings are of conifers in upland areas, but the commission encourages planting broad-leaved trees where appropriate.
Although the United Kingdom is one of Europe’s leading fishing countries, the industry has been in long-term decline. Fishing limits were extended to 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore in the mid-1970s, and, because a significant part of the area fished by other EU members lies within British waters, it has been necessary to regulate catches on a community-wide basis. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has lost opportunities to fish in some more-distant waters (e.g., those off Iceland), and this has reduced its total catch more than those of other countries of the EU. The United Kingdom’s fishing industry now supplies only half the country’s total demand. The most important fish landed are cod, haddock, mackerel, whiting, and plaice, as well as shellfish, including Nephrops (Norway lobsters), lobsters, crabs, and oysters. Estuarine fish farming—mainly of trout and salmon—has expanded considerably.
Resources and power
The United Kingdom has relatively limited supplies of economically valuable mineral resources. The once-important extraction of iron ore has dwindled to almost nothing. Other important metals that are mined include tin, which supplies about half the domestic demand, and zinc. There are adequate supplies of nonmetallic minerals, including sand and gravel, limestone, dolomite, chalk, slate, barite, talc, clay and clay shale, kaolin (china clay), ball clay, fuller’s earth, celestine, and gypsum. Sand, gravel, limestone, and other crushed rocks are quarried for use in construction.
By contrast, the United Kingdom has larger energy resources—including oil, natural gas, and coal—than any other EU member. Coal, the fuel once vital to the British economy, has continued to decrease in importance. Compared with its peak year of 1913, when more than one million workers produced more than 300 million tons, current output has fallen by more than four-fifths, with an even greater reduction in the labour force. Power stations are the major customers for coal, but, with growth in the use of other fuels and the increasing closing of pits that have become uneconomical to operate, the industry remains under considerable pressure.
The discovery of oil in the North Sea and the apportionment of its area to surrounding countries led to the rapid development of oil exploitation. Since the start of production in 1975, the quantities brought ashore have grown each year, and the United Kingdom has become virtually self-sufficient in oil and even an exporter. With an average output of nearly three million barrels per day at the beginning of the 21st century, the country was one of the world’s largest producers. The balance of payments has benefited considerably from oil revenues, and a substantial proportion has been invested abroad to offset diminishing oil income in the future. Proven reserves were estimated at around 700 million tons in the late 1990s.
Since offshore natural gas supplies from the North Sea began to be available in quantity in 1967, they have replaced the previously coal-based supplies of town gas. A national network of distribution pipelines has been created. Proven reserves of natural gas were estimated at 26.8 trillion cubic feet (760 billion cubic metres) in the late 1990s.
The manufacturing sector as a whole has continued to shrink both in employment and in its contribution (now around one-fifth) to the GDP. The decline in manufacturing largely accounted for the rapid rise in unemployment in the early 1980s. Once economic growth returned, however, there was great improvement in productivity and profits in British manufacturing.
In terms of their relative importance to the GDP, the most important manufacturing industries are engineering; food, beverages (including alcoholic beverages), and tobacco; chemicals; paper, printing, and publishing; metals and minerals; and textiles, clothing, footwear, and leather. The fastest-growing sectors have been chemicals and electrical engineering. Within the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals and specialty products have shown the largest increases. Within the engineering industry, electrical and instrument engineering and transport engineering—including motor vehicles and aerospace equipment—have grown faster than mechanical engineering and metal goods, and electronic products have shown the fastest growth. On the other hand, the growth in motor vehicle production has occurred among foreign-owned, especially Japanese, companies investing in the United Kingdom. British automobile manufacturers have been in decline since the 1970s. After a period of restructuring during the 1980s, the British steel industry substantially increased its productivity, output, and exports during the 1990s. However, food, beverages, tobacco, leather, and engineering as a whole have had below-average growth. Textiles, clothing, and footwear have been in absolute decline because British companies have faced increasing difficulty competing with imports, especially from Asia.
During the 1980s imports of manufactured products increased dramatically, and, although exports of finished manufactured products increased in value, the surplus in the balance of trade disappeared and was transformed into a large deficit. Nevertheless, after a period of restructuring in the 1980s, Britain’s manufacturing sector increased its productivity and competitiveness, and the trade balance improved and stabilized during the 1990s.
Construction in Britain stagnated during the 1990s because of a decline in prices and in demand for new housing and because of decreased government investment in infrastructure during the first half of the decade. About half the labour force in construction is self-employed. More than half of all construction work is on new projects, the remainder on repair and maintenance. There has been a marked switch from housing funded and owned by public authorities toward private development. Considerable efforts have also been made to encourage tenants of publicly owned rented houses to become owner-occupiers, with the result that the proportion of owner-occupied homes has grown considerably since the early 1970s. The supply of privately rented accommodations became scarcer because of statutory rent controls that discouraged new construction, but changes during the 1980s both in the economic climate and in official policy began to stimulate the supply. The average price of a new house, particularly in London and the South East, has generally continued to increase more rapidly than the prevailing rate of inflation, although prices have fluctuated considerably. In turn, the rising price of new homes has created considerable pressure on the land available for housing, which has been relatively tightly controlled. Here, too, public policy has been changing in favour of greater permissiveness.
Private industrial and commercial construction and public projects account for the remainder of construction. During the 1980s and ’90s the United Kingdom embarked on a series of major infrastructure projects, including the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France, the rebuilding of large parts of London’s traditional Docklands as a new commercial centre, and extensions to London’s rail and Underground systems.
The United Kingdom, particularly London, has traditionally been a world financial centre. Restructuring and deregulation transformed the sector during the 1980s and ’90s, with important changes in banking, insurance, the London Stock Exchange, shipping, and commodity markets. Some long-standing distinctions between financial institutions have become less clear-cut. For example, housing loans used to be primarily the responsibility of building societies, but increasingly banks and insurance companies have entered this area of lending. Two related developments have occurred: the transformation of building-society branch offices into virtual banks with personal cashing facilities and the diversification of all three of these types of institutions into real estate services. Building societies also participate to a limited extent in investment services, insurance, trusteeship, executorship, and land services.
At the end of the 20th century, the financial services industry employed more than one million people and contributed about one-twelfth of the GDP. Although financial services have grown rapidly in some medium-sized cities, notably Leeds and Edinburgh, London has continued to dominate the industry and has grown in size and influence as a centre of international financial operations. Capital flows have increased, as have foreign exchange and securities trading. Consequently, London has more foreign banks than any other city in the world. Increased competition and technological developments have accelerated change. The International Stock Exchange was reorganized, and the historical two-tier structure of brokers, who executed investors’ instructions to buy and sell stocks and shares, and jobbers, who “made” markets in these securities, was abolished. As a result, new companies link British and foreign banks with former brokers and jobbers. The Financial Services Act of 1986, the Building Societies Act of 1987, and the Banking Act of 1987 regulate these new financial organizations.
In 1997 the government established the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to regulate the financial services industry; it replaced a series of separate supervisory organizations, some of them based on self-regulation. Among other tasks, the FSA took over the supervision of the United Kingdom’s commercial banks from the Bank of England. The FSA was widely criticized for its response to the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 and led to a government bailout for a number of prominent British banks. As a result, the Financial Services Act of 2012 abolished the FSA, and the “tripartite” system of financial regulation (the FSA, the Bank of England, and the Treasury) was replaced in 2013 with three new bodies—the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), mandated with regulating financial service firms and protecting consumers, the Financial Policy Committee (FPC), and the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)—the last two of which were embedded in the Bank of England, to which the supervision and regulation of banks were returned.
The Bank of England retains the sole right to issue banknotes in England and Wales (banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland have limited rights to do this in their own areas). In 1997 the Bank of England was given the power to set the “repo,” or benchmark, interest rate, which influences the general structure of interest rates. The bank’s standing instruction from the government is to set an interest rate that will meet a target inflation rate of 2.5 percent per annum. The bank also intervenes actively in foreign exchange markets and acts as the government’s banker. The pound sterling is a major internationally traded currency.
A variety of institutions, including insurance companies, pension funds, and investment and unit trusts, channel individual savings into investments. Finance houses are the primary providers of home mortgages and corporate lending and leasing. There are also companies that finance the leasing of business equipment; factoring companies that provide immediate cash to creditors and subsequently collect the corporate debts owed; and finance corporations that provide venture capital funding for innovations or high-risk companies and that supplement the medium- and long-term capital markets, otherwise supplied by the banks or the Stock Market.
The United Kingdom has a number of organized financial markets. The securities markets comprise the International Stock Exchange, which deals in officially listed stocks and shares (including government issues, traded options, stock index options, and currency options); the Unlisted Securities Market, for smaller companies; and the Third Market, for small unlisted companies. Money market activities include the trading of bills, certificates of deposit, short-term deposits, and, increasingly, sterling commercial paper. Other markets are those dealing in Eurocurrency, Eurobonds, foreign exchange, financial futures, gold, ship brokerage, freight futures, and agricultural and other commodity futures.
The share of invisible trade (receipts and payments from financial services; interest, profits, and dividends; and transfers between the United Kingdom and other countries) has been rising steadily since the 1960s—from about one-third to one-half of the country’s total foreign earnings. Within this area, service transactions have grown rapidly, and financial services have grown the fastest.
Trade has long been pivotal to the United Kingdom’s economy. The total value of imports and exports represents nearly half the country’s GDP. (By comparison, the value of foreign trade amounts to about one-fifth of the GDP of the United States.) The volume of both the exports and the imports of the United Kingdom has grown steadily in recent years. Principal British exports include machinery, automobiles and other transport equipment, electrical and electronic equipment (including computers), chemicals, and oil. Services, particularly financial services, are another major export and contribute positively to Britain’s trade balance. The country imports about one-tenth of its foodstuffs and about one-third of its machinery and transport equipment.
An increasing share of the United Kingdom’s trade is with other developed countries. Joining the European Economic Community caused a major reorientation of trade flows. More than half of all trade is now with European partners, although at the beginning of the 21st century the United States remained the United Kingdom’s single largest export market and a major supplier. Germany was the leading supplier and the second most important export market.
The United Kingdom’s current overall balance of payments (including trade in services and transfer payments), which historically had been generally favourable, fell into deficit from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s because visible imports (i.e., tangible goods imported) exceeded visible exports. Meanwhile there was considerable overseas investment, and foreign earnings grew. The government has supported trade liberalization and participated in international trade organizations. By the late 1990s the steady growth in exports of goods and services and in foreign earnings had produced the first balance-of-payments surplus in more than a decade.
The most remarkable economic development in the United Kingdom has been the growth of service industries, which now provide about two-thirds of the GDP and three-fourths of total employment. This reflects the rise in real personal incomes, changes in patterns of consumer expenditure, and the elaboration and increasing outsourcing of business services. Although some services—for example, public transportation, laundries, and movie theatres—have declined in favour of privately owned goods—such as automobiles, washing machines, and television sets—this has stimulated increased demand for the related services that distribute, maintain, and repair such products. Other growing service industries include hotels and catering, air travel and other leisure-related activities, distribution (particularly retailing), and finance. Especially rapid growth has occurred in other business-support services, including computing systems and software, management consultancy, advertising, and market research, as well as the provision of exhibition and conference facilities. Britain is also the base for some of the world’s leading art auction houses.
The United Kingdom’s many cultural treasures—e.g., its historic castles, museums, and theatres—make it a popular tourist destination. The tourism industry is a leading sector in the British economy, and each year more than 25 million tourists visit the country. London is among the world’s most-visited cities.
Labour and taxation
Government revenues are derived from several main sources, including income taxes, corporate taxes, taxes on the sale of goods and services, and national insurance contributions. After World War II the government adopted individual income tax rates that were among the highest in Europe. During the last two decades of the 20th century, individual income tax rates dropped, and corporate tax rates increased slightly. A value-added tax, which levies a 20 percent tax on purchases, generates between one-tenth and one-fifth of government revenues.
During the 1980s the Thatcher government adopted policies that placed limits on the power and influence of trade unions and provided training for those entering the workforce or changing careers. The Labour government of the late 1990s retained many of Thatcher’s policies, but they abandoned the Conservative objective of unlimited tax reduction and instead sought to stabilize the overall burden of taxation at about 37 percent of GDP.
Just under half the total population is in the labour force, including a small but expanding proportion who are self-employed. About three-tenths of workers are members of a trade union, a share that dropped significantly with the adoption of legislation restricting trade union rights in the last two decades of the 20th century. Among the various influential trade organizations are the public-sector union UNISON and the general-services unions Unite and GMB. Although manufacturing once dominated employment, it now involves less than one-sixth of all workers. In contrast, the service sector employs more than two-thirds of employees, with financial services and distribution the two largest components.
Transportation and telecommunications
The United Kingdom, which is relatively small in area and has a fairly high population density, has undergone considerable change in its patterns of transport. The growth of automobile ownership (by the turn of the 21st century, nearly two-thirds of all households had one automobile, and some had two or more), the decline in the use of local buses, and the transfer of much internal freight from rail to road increased the importance of maintaining and developing road networks, particularly motorways (superhighways) and trunk roads. Intercity rail services have been improved, as have commuter services in major metropolitan areas. Similarly, air traffic has grown, particularly international flights. Although there has been a downward trend in shipping and sea travel, most foreign trade still moves by sea. However, the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link between England and France in 1994 had a big impact on cross-Channel passenger and freight patterns. At peak periods the tunnel accommodates up to four passenger and four freight shuttletrains per hour in each direction. By the end of the decade, these trains carried about half of the car traffic and more than one-third of the coach and truck traffic on the Dover/Folkestone–Calais route—the principal artery linking Britain to mainland Europe. In addition, the tunnel accommodates through freight trains and high-speed passenger trains between London and Paris or Brussels. Substantial passenger and cargo traffic moves by sea between the ports of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Europe. Oil and natural gas, each of which has a national bulk-distribution pipeline system, do not rely on the road and rail networks.
Investment in transportation has sometimes failed to meet rising demand—for example, the M25 motorway around London showed signs of overload soon after it was opened in 1986; there is overcrowding on commuter rail services, including London’s Underground; congested traffic moves at a snail’s pace in cities; and there is continuous pressure to build more motorways and airports to serve London.
During the 1980s British Telecom (BT) was privatized, and the government subsequently deregulated the country’s telecommunications sector. Although BT has continued to be the largest telecommunications company, several additional operators provide extensive service for cable, wireless, fibre-optic, and other telecommunications services. An independent regulatory agency, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), oversees the sector.
Government And Society
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. The country’s head of state is the reigning king or queen, and the head of government is the prime minister, who is the leader of the majority political party in the House of Commons.
The British constitution is uncodified; it is only partly written and is flexible. Its basic sources are parliamentary and European Union legislation, the European Convention on Human Rights, and decisions by courts of law. Matters for which there is no formal law, such as the resignation of office by a government, follow precedents (conventions) that are open to development or modification. Works of authority, such as Albert Venn Dicey’s Lectures Introductory to the Study of the Law of the Constitution(1885), are also considered part of the constitution.
The main elements of the government are the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. There is some overlap between the branches, as there is no formal separation of powers or system of checks and balances. For example, the lord chancellor traditionally was a member of all three branches, serving as a member of the cabinet (executive branch), as the government’s leader in the House of Lords (legislative branch), and as the head of the country’s judiciary (judicial branch). However, constitutional reforms enacted in 2005 (and entering into force in 2006) stripped the office of most of its legislative and judicial functions, with those powers devolving to the lord speaker and the lord chief justice, respectively. That reform also created the Supreme Court, which in October 2009 replaced the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords as the venue of last resort in the British legal system.
Sovereignty resides in Parliament, which comprises the monarch, the mainly appointive House of Lords, and the elected House of Commons. The sovereignty of Parliament is expressed in its legislative enactments, which are binding on all, though individuals may contest in the courts the legality of any action under a specific statute. In certain circumstances individuals may also seek protection under European law. Until 1999 the House of Lords consisted mainly of hereditary peers (or nobles). Since then it has comprised mainly appointed peers, selected by successive prime ministers to serve for life. As of March 2016, of 815 lords, 701 were life peers, 88 were hereditary peers, and another 26 were archbishops and bishops. Each of the 650 members of the House of Commons (members of Parliament; MPs) represents an individual constituency (district) by virtue of winning a plurality of votes in the constituency.
All political power rests with the prime minister and the cabinet, and the monarch must act on their advice. The prime minister chooses the cabinet from MPs in his political party. Most cabinet ministers are heads of government departments. The prime minister’s authority grew during the 20th century, and, alone or with one or two colleagues, the prime minister increasingly has made decisions previously made by the cabinet as a whole. Prime ministers have nevertheless been overruled by the cabinet on many occasions and must generally have its support to exercise their powers.
Because the party with a majority in the House of Commons supports the cabinet, it exercises the sovereignty of Parliament. The royal right of veto has not been exercised since the early 18th century, and the legislative power of the House of Lords was reduced in 1911 to the right to delay legislation. The cabinet plans and lays before Parliament all important bills. Although the cabinet thus controls the lawmaking machinery, it is also subject to Parliament; it must expound and defend its policy in debate, and its continuation in office depends on the support of the House of Commons.
The executive apparatus, the cabinet secretariat, was developed after World War I and carries out the cabinet’s decisions. It also prepares the cabinet’s agenda, records its conclusions, and communicates them to the government departments that implement them.
Within the United Kingdom, national assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland took power in 1999 and assumed some powers previously held exclusively by the central Parliament at Westminster, to which they remain subordinate. The central Parliament retains full legislative and executive control over England, which lacks a separate regional assembly.
Scotland’s Parliament has wide powers over such matters as health, education, housing, transport, the environment, and agriculture. It also has the power to increase or decrease the British income tax rate within Scotland by up to three percentage points. The central Parliament retains responsibility for foreign affairs, defense, social security, and overall economic policy. Unlike the members of the House of Commons, members of the Scottish Parliament are chosen under a system of proportional representation. Scotland has a distinct legal system based on Roman law. In 2011 the Scottish National Party formed Scotland’s first majority government, which pledged an independence forum by 2015.
Since 1999 Wales has also had its own assembly, but only in 2011 did that National Assembly gain direct lawmaking power. It broadly administers the same services as the Scottish Parliament. Like Scottish legislators, members of the Welsh assembly are elected by proportional representation.
The Northern Ireland Assembly gained limited legislative and executive power at the end of 1999. Its members, like those of the other regional assemblies, are elected by proportional representation. It has power over matters concerning agriculture, economic development, education, the environment, health, and social services, but the Westminster government retains control over foreign affairs, defense, general economic policy, taxation, policing, and criminal justice. Divisions between unionist (Protestant) and nationalist (Roman Catholic) factions in the Northern Ireland Assembly, however, have threatened its future. If either faction withdraws from the assembly, the region could return to the system of direct rule by the central government that prevailed in Northern Ireland from 1973 to 1999.
Each part of the United Kingdom has a distinct system of local government. (For a full account of local government in each part of the United Kingdom, see the discussions of local government in the articles on England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.) Local governments have very few legislative powers and must act within the framework of laws passed by the central Parliament (and by the Scottish Parliament in Scotland). Nevertheless, they do have the power to enact regulations and to levy council taxes (property taxes) within limits set by the central government. They are funded by the council taxes that they levy, by business rates (taxes levied on nonresidential properties, such as stores, offices, factories, and warehouses), by fees for services, and by grants from the central government. Local governments in the United Kingdom are responsible for a range of community services, including environmental matters, education, highways and traffic, social services, firefighting, sanitation, planning, housing, parks and recreation, and elections. In Scotland and Wales regional governments handle some of these functions, and local governments handle the remainder. In Northern Ireland the Northern Ireland Assembly is responsible for many of these functions. The responsibilities of local governments in Northern Ireland are limited to environmental matters, sanitation, and recreation.
Parts of the United Kingdom have as many as three levels, or tiers, of local government, each with its own responsibilities, whereas other areas have only a single tier or two tiers. Throughout England, parish and town councils form the lowest tier of local government. (Parishes are civil subdivisions, usually centred on a village or small town, that are distinct from church bodies.) They have the power to assess “precepts” (surcharges) on the local rates and a range of rights and duties, including maintenance of commons, recreational facilities, and environmental quality and participation in the planning process. Community councils perform a similar role in Wales, whereas community councils in Scotland are voluntary and consultative bodies with few statutory powers. This lowest level of local government has no counterpart in Northern Ireland.
The next tier of local government is usually known in England and Northern Ireland as a district, borough, or city. In Northern Ireland this is the only level of local government. In Scotland and Wales this second tier is the only one with broad powers over major local government functions. In Wales these local government areas are known as either counties or county boroughs, while in Scotland they are variously known as council areas or local government authorities or, in some cases, cities. In some areas of England this second tier of local government is the only one with broad statutory and administrative powers. These areas are known in England as unitary authorities (since they form a single tier of local government above the parishes and towns) or metropolitan boroughs (which are functionally equivalent to unitary authorities but form part of a larger metropolitan county). In other areas of England, districts, boroughs, and cities form an intermediate tier of local government between the towns and parishes on the one hand and administrative counties on the other. Administrative counties, which cover much of England, are the highest tier of local government where they exist.
In Greater London, boroughs form the lowest tier of local government and are responsible for most local government functions. However, in 2000 a new Greater London Authority (GLA) was established with very limited revenue-gathering powers but with responsibility for public transport, policing, emergency services, the environment, and planning in Greater London as a whole. The GLA consists of a directly elected mayor (a constitutional innovation for the United Kingdom, which had never previously filled any executive post by direct election) and a 25-member assembly elected by proportional representation.
Whereas the administrative counties of England and the counties and county boroughs of Wales have statutory and administrative powers, there are other areas throughout the United Kingdom that are called counties but lack administrative power. In England, metropolitan counties cover metropolitan areas; they serve as geographic and statistical units, but since 1986 their administrative powers have belonged to their constituent metropolitan boroughs. Moreover, in England there is a unit known variously as a ceremonial county or a geographic county. These counties also form geographic and statistical units. In most cases they comprise an administrative county and one or more unitary authorities. In other cases they comprise one or more unitary authorities without an administrative county. Greater London and each of the metropolitan counties also constitute ceremonial and geographic counties. These areas are known as ceremonial counties because each has a lord lieutenant and a high sheriff who serve as the representatives of the monarch in the county and who represent the county at the ceremonial functions of the monarchy.
Finally, every part of the United Kingdom lies within what is known as a historic county. The historic counties have formed geographic and cultural units since the Middle Ages, and they historically had a variety of administrative powers. The Local Government Act of 1888 regularized the administrative powers of counties and reassigned them to new administrative counties with the same names as the historic counties but with different boundaries in some cases. Successive local government reorganizations in the 1970s and ’90s redrew the boundaries of administrative units in the United Kingdom so that no remaining administrative unit corresponds directly to a historic county, although many administrative and geographic counties and other local government units carry the names of historic counties. Still, even though they lack administrative power, historic counties remain important cultural units. They serve as a focus for local identity, and cultural institutions such as sporting associations are often organized by historic county.
Recruited from successful practicing lawyers, judges in the United Kingdom are appointed and virtually irremovable. The courts alone declare the law, but the courts accept any act of Parliament as part of the law. As courts in the United Kingdom do not possess the power of judicial review, no court can declare a statute invalid.
An accused person is presumed innocent until proved guilty. The courts strictly enforce a law of contempt to prevent newspapers or television from prejudicing the trial of the accused before a jury. Verdicts in criminal cases rest on a majority vote of the jury (in Scotland a simple majority, in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland with no more than two dissenting votes). Capital punishment was abolished in 1965. Almost all defendants in criminal cases in the Crown Courts (in Scotland the High Court of Justiciary), which deal with all serious cases, are granted publicly funded legal aid.
More than 90 percent of criminal cases in England and Wales are tried and determined by about 30,000 justices of the peace, who are unpaid laypersons, or by the more than 60 stipendiary (paid) magistrates, who are trained lawyers. More serious crimes also come initially before a magistrate’s court. The system is similar in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland district and sheriff courts try most criminal cases. The police must bring an arrested person before a magistrate within 36 hours, but the magistrate can authorize further detention without charge for up to 96 hours. Only 1 percent of suspects are held without charge for more than 24 hours, however. The magistrate decides whether the accused should be held on bail or in custody.
The vast majority of civil actions in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are tried in local county courts, whose jurisdiction is limited by the nature of the action and the amount of money at stake. In Scotland, sheriff courts and the Court of Session try all civil actions.
Appeals in civil and criminal matters move from the High and Crown courts to the Court of Appeal, from which for centuries cases of legal importance could be appealed to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, better known as the Law Lords. In October 2009, however, as a result of constitutional reform, the Appellate Committee was abolished and replaced by a newly constituted Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, made up of 12 independently appointed justices. At the same time, the Supreme Court also assumed the devolution jurisdiction previously held by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In Scotland only civil matters may be appealed to the House of Lords.
All citizens aged 18 or older are eligible to vote in parliamentary and local elections as well as in elections to the European Parliament. All other public posts are filled by appointment. Each member of the House of Commons represents one parliamentary constituency. Constituency populations historically have varied considerably, with those in Scotland and Wales being much smaller than those in England. This overrepresentation for Scotland and Wales dates from the 18th century and the 1940s, respectively; however, because of the wide array of powers vested in the Scottish Parliament, the disparity in constituency size between England and Scotland was eliminated at the May 2005 election, when Scotland’s seats in the House of Commons were reduced from 72 to 59. Constituencies in Northern Ireland are slightly smaller than those in England. As there are no residency requirements, many members of Parliament reside outside the constituency that they represent.
Registration of voters is compulsory and carried out annually. Candidates for election to Parliament or a local council are normally chosen by the local parties. There are no primary elections along U.S. lines, for example, nor would such a system be easy because the timing of general elections is unpredictable.
The House of Commons is elected for a maximum term of five years. Traditionally, at any time during those five years, the prime minister had the right to ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 mandated a five-year period between elections and proscribed early elections except under special circumstances: (1) if a motion for an early general election is agreed upon either by at least two-thirds of the whole House of Commons or without division (that is, when a voice vote is sufficient to determine the will of the House of Commons) or (2) if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the House of Commons within 14 days. Parliamentary candidates’ campaign spending is strictly limited. Since 2000, national party expenditure, which was previously unrestricted, has been limited to a maximum of £20 million per party. In addition, each party is allocated free election broadcasts on the main television channels. Televised debates between the leaders of the principal parties (de facto candidates for prime minister) were a part of the campaign process for the first time in the 2010 general election. No paid political advertising is permitted on television or radio. These provisions and the uncertainty about the timing of an election produce campaigns that are, by international standards, unusually brief and relatively inexpensive.
A two-party system has existed in the United Kingdom since the late 17th century. Since the mid-1920s the dominant groupings have been the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. However, several smaller parties—e.g., the Liberal Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party), and loyalist (unionist) and republican (nationalist) political parties in Northern Ireland—have gained representation in Parliament, especially since the 1970s. The two-party system is one of the outstanding features of British politics and generally has produced firm and decisive government. The practice of simple plurality voting in single-member constituencies (commonly referred to a “first past the post”) has tended to exaggerate the majority of the winning party and to diminish the representation and influence of third parties, except for those with a geographic base of support (e.g., Plaid Cymru). When the 2010 general election resulted in a “hung parliament” (no party with enough seats to form a majority government), the Liberal Democrats—who were courted as coalition partner by both the Conservatives (who captured the most seats) and Labour (which finished a distant second)—used as a bargaining chip the possibility of changing to a system of proportional representation that would benefit third parties.
The two-party system, together with uncertainty about the timing of a general election, has produced the British phenomenon of the official opposition. Its decisive characteristic is that the main opposition party forms an alternative, or “shadow,” government, ready at any time to take office, in recognition of which the leader of the opposition receives an official salary.
Despite several high-profile female monarchs and politicians, men have dominated politics in the United Kingdom for centuries. In 2011, however, centuries-old succession laws stipulating that the heir to the throne be the first-born son of the monarch and that sons take precedence over daughters in succession were slated for change to remove gender as a qualification. Nevertheless, while women have made strong political gains in much of western Europe, especially in Scandinavia, breakthroughs for women in British national elections have been rare. Throughout much of the 20th century, only a few women won elections; before the 1980s the high point for female representation in the House of Commons was 29 in 1964. Indeed, many women who were able to win election to the House of Commons were of aristocratic stock or widows of influential politicians. One such exception was Margaret Thatcher, who was first elected to Parliament in 1959 and became Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979. However, during the 1980s women began to make gains, with 60 female candidates winning seats in Parliament in 1992. In order to increase its appeal to women and increase the number of women MPs, the Labour Partyadopted a policy of all-women shortlists for half of its “target seats” (i.e., seats where an existing Labour MP was standing down or where Conservative MPs had small majorities) for the 1997 election, and, though the policy subsequently was ruled in violation of equal rights laws, 120 women—101 from the Labour Party—were elected to the House of Commons. Even with the law invalidated, 118 women won election in 2001. In addition to women, minorities have had some success in national elections. There consistently have been several Jewish members of the House of Commons, and Sikh and Muslim candidates also have had limited success.
The United Kingdom has no national police force nor any minister exclusively responsible for the police. Each provincial force is overseen by an elected police and crime commissioner (PCC), whose performance is scrutinized by police and crime panels. PCCs are responsible for the totality of policing, answerable to the communities they serve, and charged with holding accountable the chief constable and police force.
The commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police has a status similar to that of a chief constable. Scotland Yard (the criminal investigation department of the Metropolitan Police) assists other police forces and handles the British responsibilities of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).
The British police, popularly known as “bobbies,” wear a uniform that is nonmilitary in appearance. Their only regular weapon is a short, wooden truncheon, which they keep out of sight and may not employ except in self-defense or to restore order. Police on a dangerous mission may carry firearms for that specific occasion.
Responsibility for national defense rests with the prime minister and the cabinet. The secretary of state for defense formulates defense policy. His ministry has responsibility for the armed forces. The secretary of state is advised by the chief of the defense staff, aided by the chiefs of the three services—the army, navy, and air force. Britain has been an active member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), deploying its troops in various theatres of conflict. Internal security and intelligence are handled by the MI5 government agency, and foreign intelligence services are carried out by MI6.
Health and welfare
The National Health Service
The National Health Service (NHS) provides comprehensive health care throughout the United Kingdom. The NHS provides medical care through a tripartite structure of primary care, hospitals, and community health care. The main element in primary care is the system of general practitioners (family doctors), who provide preventive and curative care and who refer patients to hospital and specialist services. All consultations with a general practitioner under the NHS are free.
The other major types of primary medical care are dentistry and pharmaceutical and opthalmic services. These are the only services of the NHS for which charges are levied, though persons under age 16, past retirement, or with low incomes are usually exempt. Everyone else must pay charges that are below the full cost of the services involved.
Under the Department of Health in England are four regional health directors who oversee area health authorities, whose major responsibility is to run the hospital service. (Overseeing the health authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is the responsibility of their respective parliament or assembly.) Hospitals absorb more than two-thirds of the NHS budget. All hospital treatment under the NHS is free, including consultations with doctors, nursing, drugs, and intensive care, whatever the type of medical problem and however long the hospital stay. Hospital doctors are paid a salary rather than a fee for service but can combine salaried work for the NHS with a private practice.
The Community Health Service has three functions: to provide preventive health services; to act as a liaison with local government, especially over matters of public health; and to cooperate with local government personal social service departments to enable health and personal care to be handled together whenever possible.
Individuals can register with any NHS general practitioner in their area who is prepared to add them to his or her list of patients. Anyone who wishes to change to another doctor may do so. Except in emergencies, patients are referred to a hospital by their general practitioner, allowing patients an element of choice.
Apart from the charges mentioned above, treatment under the NHS is free to the patient. The service is almost entirely funded by government revenues, with less than 5 percent of NHS revenue coming from charges. This arrangement is unique among industrialized countries. There is no substantial reliance on private medical insurance (as, for example, in the United States).
The NHS budget, like that for any other government service, is determined by negotiations between the Treasury and the spending departments, as modified by subsequent discussion in the cabinet. The resulting figure is a budget for the NHS as a whole. The division of money throughout the United Kingdom is partly constrained by a formula designed to improve the geographic distribution of medical resources. Each regional authority divides its total funds among the area health authorities.
Alongside the NHS is a system of private medical care both for primary care and for hospital treatment. Although it grew somewhat in the 1980s and ’90s, the sector absorbs only about one-tenth of the total expenditure on doctors and hospital inpatient care. Most private care is financed by voluntary private medical insurance.
Although the NHS is a popular institution, it is not without problems: resources are scarce, many hospital buildings are old, there are waiting lists for nonurgent conditions, the distribution of health care by social class and by region is less equal than many would wish, and management needs to be improved. The advantages, however, are enormous. The NHS is very inexpensive by international standards; in the late 1990s, for example, the United Kingdom spent about half the percentage of GDP on health care as the United States. Despite such low spending, health in the United Kingdom, measured in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, matches that in comparable countries. The variation in the quality and quantity of treatment by income level is smaller than in most other countries. The system is able to direct resources toward specific regions and specific types of care. Treatment is free, whatever the extent and duration of illness, no one is denied care because of low income, and no one fears financial ruin as a result of treatment.
The current system of cash benefits, though substantially modified since its introduction in 1946, is based on the 1942 “Beveridge Report.” Every employed person pays a national insurance contribution, which since 1975 has taken the form of a percentage of earnings, although contributions are due only on amounts up to about 150 percent of nationwide average earnings. Employers collect the contribution, and there is also an employer contribution. Separate arrangements exist for the self-employed. The revenue from contributions goes into the National Insurance Fund.
Insured individuals are entitled to unemployment compensation, cash benefits during sickness or disability, and a retirement pension. There are also benefits for individuals injured in work-related accidents and for widows. Whether or not they receive an insurance benefit, all are eligible for a noncontributory benefit. Employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own receive lump-sum redundancy, or severance, payments, whose cost is met in part by their employers and in part from a general levy on employers.
The major noncontributory benefits, paid out of general tax revenues, offer poverty relief to individuals and families whose income and savings fall below some prescribed level. The benefit of last resort is income support (formerly called the supplementary benefit); it is payable to individuals whose entitlement to insurance benefits has been exhausted or has left them with a very low income and to those who never had any entitlement to an insurance benefit. Other means-tested benefits assist low-paid working families with children and help people on low incomes with their housing costs. An important class of noncontributory benefits is not means-tested, the major example being the child benefit, a weekly tax-free payment for each child, usually payable to the mother.
The 1946 system has changed substantially over the years, with a burst of reform in the mid-1970s, including an increase in earnings-related pensions, and another in the late 1990s. In the late 1990s a working-families tax credit replaced income support for low-paid working households with children, and the government introduced a national minimum wage. The government also introduced a children’s tax credit to provide additional support to low- and middle-income families. There was a review of the benefit system in 1985 that changed the detailed workings of several benefits in 1988 but left the basic structure intact.
During the mid-20th century, local governments developed council houses (public housing estates) throughout the United Kingdom. At public housing’s peak, about 1970, local governments owned 30 percent of all housing in the country. Under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 (which amended older legislation), local governments have a statutory obligation in certain circumstances to find housing for homeless families. Partly for that reason, they keep a substantial stock of housing for rent, maintain waiting lists, and allocate housing according to need. Following the introduction of “right to buy” legislation in 1980, many tenants became owner-occupiers. By the beginning of the 21st century, the proportion of homes owned by local governments had almost halved.
Primary and secondary education
Overall responsibility for education and children’s services in England rests with the Department of Education, which is accountable to Parliament. Separate departments of education are headed by ministers who answer to the assemblies in Scotland (Education and Lifelong Learning Department), Wales (Department of Education and Skills), and Northern Ireland (Department for Education). State-funded primary and secondary education are a local responsibility, generally overseen by the local authority. There is also a small private sector.
Primary education is free and compulsory from age 5 to 11. Secondary education is organized in a variety of ways for children aged 11 to 19 and is free and compulsory to age 16. In most parts of the United Kingdom, secondary schools are comprehensive; that is, they are open to pupils of all abilities. Pupils may stay on past the minimum school-leaving age of 16 to earn a certificate or take public examinations that qualify them for higher education.
The state finances primary and secondary education out of central and local tax revenues. Most expenditures take place at the local level, though about half of local revenues derive from the central government. Under the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, a new type of school was introduced—academies, which receive their funding directly from the central government (though they are eligible for some local funding and were initially required to have private sponsors). Academies operate independently of the local authority and have greater freedom than traditional (“maintained”) state schools over their curriculum and finance, as well as teachers’ pay and conditions. Academies generally arise from underperforming schools that have been given over to a new provider, whereas free schools, another new type of institution, operate as academies do but differ from them in that they are wholly new schools. Although the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government led by David Cameron pushed for a significant expansion of academies and free schools, in the early 2010s they still constituted only a small percentage of state-funded schools.
Alongside the state sector, a small number of private schools (often called “public schools”) provide education for a small percentage of children. Their existence is controversial. It is argued that private schools divert gifted children and teachers and scarce financial resources from state schools and that they perpetuate economic and social divisions (an argument that some have extended to include academies and free schools). The counterarguments focus on their high quality, the beneficial effects of competition, and parents’ freedom of choice.
Universities historically have been independent and self-governing; however, they have close links with the central government because a large proportion of their income derives from public funds. Higher education also takes place in other colleges.
Students do not have a right to a place at a university; they are carefully selected by examination performance, and the dropout rate is low by international standards. Most students receive state-funded grants inversely related to their parents’ income to cover the tuition fees. In addition, most students receive state-funded loans to cover living expenses. Foreign students and British students taking a degree at an overseas university are not generally eligible for public funding.
Public funds flow to universities through recurrent grants and in the form of tuition fees; universities also derive income from foreign students and from various private-sector sources. After a major expansion in the 1960s, the system came under pressure in the 1980s. Public funding became more restricted, and the grant system no longer supported students adequately. The government introduced the present system of student loans to replace dwindling grants for living expenses and established higher-education funding councils in each part of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) to coordinate state support of higher education. In 2010, in the interest of budget reduction, the government raised the maximum level of tuition for higher educational institutions in England to £9,000 (about $11,600) per year. In 2016 that limit was raised to £9,250 (about $11,900), with plans to allow further increases to keep up with inflation.
The Open University—a unique innov ation in higher education—is a degree-granting institution that provides courses of study for adults through television, radio, and local study programs. Applicants must apply for a number of places limited at any time by the availability of teachers.
Nicholas A. BarrPeter Kellner
English culture tends to dominate the formal cultural life of the United Kingdom, but Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have also made important contributions, as have the cultures that British colonialism brought into contact with the homeland. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland share fully in the common culture but also preserve lively traditions that predate political union with England.
Widespread changes in the United Kingdom’s cultural life occurred after 1945. The most remarkable was perhaps the emergence first of Liverpool and then of London in the 1960s as a world centre of popular culture. The Beatles were only the first and best-known of the many British rock groups to win a world following. British clothing designers for a time led the world as innovators of new styles of dress for both men and women, and the brightly coloured outfits sold in London’s Carnaby Street and King’s Road shops briefly became more symbolic of Britain than the traditionally staid tailoring of Savile Row.
Underlying both this development and a similar if less-remarked renewal of vigour in more traditional fields were several important social developments in the decades after World War II. Most evident was the rising standard of education. The number of pupils going on to higher education increased dramatically after World War II and was matched by a major expansion in the number of universities and other institutions of higher education. In society in general there was a marked increase in leisure. Furthermore, immigration, particularly from the West Indies and South Asia, introduced new cultural currents to the United Kingdom and contributed to innovation in music, film, literature, and other arts.
Daily life and social customs
The United Kingdom’s cultural traditions are reflective of the country’s heterogeneity and its central importance in world affairs over the past several centuries. Each constituent part of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—maintains its own unique customs, traditions, cuisine, and festivals. Moreover, as Britain’s empire spanned the globe, it became a focal point of immigration, especially after the independence of its colonies, from its colonial possessions. As a result, immigrants from all corners of the world have entered the United Kingdom and settled throughout the country, leaving indelible imprints on British culture. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, age-old English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh customs stood alongside the rich traditions of Afro-Caribbean, Asian, and Muslim immigrants, placing the United Kingdom among the world’s most cosmopolitan and diverse countries.
From the plays of William Shakespeare to the music of the Sex Pistols, British art has had a tremendous impact on world culture. Writers from every part of the United Kingdom, joined by immigrants from parts of the former British Empire and the Commonwealth, have enriched the English language and world literature alike with their work. British studios, playwrights, directors, and actors have been remarkable pioneers of stage and screen. British comedians have brought laughter to diverse audiences and been widely imitated; British composers have found devoted listeners around the world, as have various contemporary pop groups and singer-songwriters; and British philosophers have had a tremendous influence in shaping the course of scientific and moral inquiry. From medieval time to the present, this extraordinary flowering of the arts has been encouraged at every level of society. Early royal patronage played an important role in the development of the arts in Britain, and since the mid 20th century the British government has done much to foster their growth.
The independent Arts Council of Great Britain, which was founded in 1946, supported many kinds of contemporary creative and performing arts until 1994, when it devolved into the Arts Council of England (which became Arts Council England in 2003 after joining with the Regional Arts Boards), the Arts Council of Wales, and the Scottish Arts Council (the last becoming Creative Scotland 2010, when it consolidated with Scottish Screen). Having developed separately from the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland reorganized in 1995.
The state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and privately owned Channel Four Television are also major patrons of the arts, especially music and film. The work of filmmakers and actors throughout the United Kingdom is supported by the Film Council, a government board that helps fund productions and secure film-related services. This support has contributed to the great expansion of the market for cultural goods and of audiences for the arts generally. As in many other highly developed countries, the clash of tastes and values between generations and, to some extent, between social classes has occasionally been sharp, as it was in the 1960s and ’70s. However, the overall effect of social and financial diversity has been to make culture a major British industry, which employs more than a million people and commands one-sixth of the world’s cultural exports, three times greater than Britain’s share of world trade overall.
The United Kingdom contains many cultural treasures. It is home to a wide range of learned societies, including the British Academy, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The British Museum in London houses historical artifacts from all parts of the globe. London is also home to many museums (e.g., the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate galleries, the Imperial War Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum) and theatres (e.g., the Royal National Theatre and those in the world-renowned West End theatre district). Cultural institutions also abound throughout the country. Among the many libraries and museums of interest in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are the Royal Museum, the Museum of Scotland, and the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, the Museum of Scottish Country Life in Glasgow, the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
Sports and recreation
The global spread of sports that had their origins in Britain was central to the development of modern sports in the 18th and 19th centuries and is one of the British Empire’s important cultural legacies. The modern game of football (soccer) is generally accepted to have originated in England. The Football Association, the game’s first organization, was founded in England in 1863, and the first football match played between England and Scotland—the oldest rivalry in the sport—was at Glasgow in 1872. English football fans can follow three national divisions and the celebrated premiership, which includes such legendary clubs as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool FC. Scotland has three national divisions as well and a premiership that features the Celtic and Rangers clubs of Glasgow; Wales and Northern Ireland also have national leagues. The Scottish and English national teams regularly appear in international competitions. In 1966 England hosted and won the World Cup; it was the third host nation to win the championship.
Rugby and cricket have also long enjoyed great popularity in Britain. According to tradition, rugby began in 1823 at Rugby School in England. In 1871 the Rugby Football Union was formed as the English governing body, and the rival Rugby Football League was founded in 1895. England, Scotland, and Wales all have club competitions in both union and league versions of the game. The three also send national teams to the Six Nations Championship and to World Cup tournaments. Cricket’s origins may date to 13th-century England, and county competition in England was formally organized in the 19th century. International matches, known as tests, began in 1877 with a match between England and Australia.
Great Britain has attended every modern Olympic Games, beginning with the first competition in Athens, Greece, in 1896. Britain has hosted the Games three times in London, in 1908, 1948, and 2012. At the 1896 Games weight lifter Launceston Elliot was the first Briton to win a gold medal, and in 1908 figure skater Madge Cave Syers became the first female athlete to win a medal in the Winter Games. British athletes have won hundreds of medals over the years, making especially strong showings in athletics, tennis, rowing, yachting, and figure skating. Several British athletes have put forth memorable performances in track-and-field events, including sprinter Harold Abrahams in the 1920s, middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, and two-time decathlon gold medalist Daley Thompsonin the 1970s and ’80s. At the 2000 Summer Games rower Steve Redgrave accomplished the rare feat of earning gold medals in five consecutive Games. At the 2012 Games in London, athletes representing the United Kingdom claimed 65 medals.
Britain is home to several important international sports competitions. The Open Championship—also known, outside of Britain, as the British Open—is a golf tournament held annually, often at the world-renowned course at St. Andrews in Scotland. The All-England (Wimbledon) Championships is one of the world’s leading tennis competitions. Celebrated horse-racing events include the Royal Ascot, the Derby, and the Grand National steeplechase. The Henley Royal Regatta is the world’s premiere rowing championship.
Although the United Kingdom’s climate often rewards staying indoors, the British are enthusiasts of outdoor leisure activities and are well served by an extensive network of hiking and bicycling paths, national parks, and other amenities. Especially popular are the Lake District, which preserves a scenic area commemorated in many works by English poets; the rugged Scottish Highlands and Inner Hebrides islands; and the mountainous Welsh region of Snowdonia National Park, a magnet for climbers from around the world.
Media and publishing
The communications media—press, publishing, broadcasting, and entertainment—reach audiences ranging from the millions for television, radio, and national newspapers to small minorities for local papers, specialist periodicals, or experimental theatre and film. In addition to their presence in print, most newspapers disseminate information through the Internet, to which access grew rapidly during the late 1990s. By the early 21st century about one-third of all households had personal computers with access to the Internet.
In both sales and reputation the national papers published in London dominate. Within the national newspaper business in the United Kingdom, a distinction has developed between popular papers (often tabloids) with multimillion circulation and quality broadsheet papers with relatively small sales. Four “populars” account for about five-sixths of the total morning paper circulation. Generally, British newspapers are not formally tied to specific political parties. However, most display clear political sympathies that are usually determined by their proprietors. The tabloid Daily Mail and the broadsheet The Daily Telegraph have consistently supported the Conservative Party, while the tabloid The Daily Mirror and the broadsheet The Guardian (published in both London and Manchester) have normally supported Labour. The Times of London is one of the world’s oldest newspapers. The United Kingdom’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun—whose popularity since it was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News International company in 1969 has stemmed from a diet of sensational personality-based news stories, show-business gossip, lively sports reporting, and pictures of scantily dressed young women—supported Labour in the early 1970s, switched to the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and switched back again to Labour in the late 1990s. In England there are also several regional dailies and weeklies and national weeklies—some targeting particular ethnic communities.
The Welsh press includes several daily papers (e.g., the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo) as well as a number of weekly English-language, bilingual, or Welsh-language newspapers. Scotland has national daily newspapers based in Edinburgh and Glasgow with wide circulation (e.g., The Scotsman, the Daily Record, and The Herald) and a number of regional weeklies as well. Northern Ireland’s daily papers (e.g., the Belfast Telegraph and The Irish News) are all published in Belfast. There is a large periodical press in the United Kingdom that ranges from such traditional publications as The Economist, The Spectator, and New Statesman to more specialized and, often, more mercurial journals.
The BBC, which had been established as an independent public corporation in 1927, held a monopoly of both radio and television broadcasting until 1954, when the Independent Television Authority (ITA) was established to provide the facilities for commercial television companies. The ITA’s successor today is the Office of Communications (Ofcom). Created by the Communications Act of 2003, Ofcom is responsible for regulating all commercial radio and television services, including satellite and cable, as well as all wired, wireless, and broadband telecommunications. Commercial television broadcasters include Channel Four and the ITV network. Almost every household receives the terrestrial television channels, and by the early 21st century about one in four households also could receive several dozen additional channels by satellite or cable. The satellite and cable market is dominated by Sky PLC (formerly BSkyB), which is partly owned by Murdoch’s News International. Sky, which serves Austria, Germany, Ireland, and Italy as well as the United Kingdom, also operates a 24-hour news channel and several sports channels.
A new 11-year charter for the BBC was enacted in 2016. Under it the BBC continues to draw its revenue from license fees (on a scale fixed by the government) from persons owning television sets. Its governance, however, shifted from the external BBC Trust and internal BBC Executive to a new “unitary board,” the majority of whose members are appointed by the BBC. The board also includes members nominated by the government whose involvement guarantees that the individual interests of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are represented. Whereas regulation of the BBC was formerly provided by the BBC Trust, that responsibility now falls to Ofcom and its governing board, which also license and regulate commercial television companies, which earn revenue by selling advertising time and (in the case of some satellite and cable companies) subscription and pay-per-view channels. The BBC operates two terrestrial television channels, and Ofcom operates three. On its second television channel, the BBC tends to offer programs of above-average intellectual and cultural interest—competition that the Channel Four commercial channel meets with its own cultural programs. The BBC also provides a 24-hour news service and a channel devoted to live proceedings of Parliament to people able to receive satellite, cable, or digital television services. In addition, BBC Radio operates a comprehensive external service, broadcasting around the world in more than 40 languages, as well as a world service in English 24 hours a day.
Both the BBC and terrestrial commercial channels supply educational programs for schools and for adult studies. The Open University, offering degree courses to people who lack formal academic qualifications, uses educational programs that are broadcast by the BBC; these programs are backed by correspondence courses.
The BBC and Ofcom are public bodies that in the last resort can be controlled by the government, and Parliament can alter the terms of their authority. The government has the statutory power to veto a broadcast, but only rarely does it interfere with the day-to-day management of the BBC or Ofcom. There are more than 30 BBC local radio stations and more than 200 commercial local radio stations serving the United Kingdom.
For a more-detailed discussion of cultural life in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, see the cultural life sections of the articles England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Peter Kellner The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
This discussion encompasses the history of England and Great Britain. Histories of the other three constituent parts of the United Kingdom can be found in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Archaeologists working in Norfolk in the early 21st century discovered stone tools that suggest the presence of humans in Britain from about 800,000 to 1 million years ago. These startling discoveries underlined the extent to which archaeological research is responsible for any knowledge of Britain before the Roman conquest (begun AD 43). Britain’s ancient history is thus lacking in detail, for archaeology can rarely identify personalities, motives, or exact dates or present more than a general overview. All that is available is a picture of successive cultures and some knowledge of economic development. But even in Roman times Britain lay on the periphery of the civilized world, and Roman historians, for the most part, provide for that period only a framework into which the results of archaeological research can be fitted. Britain truly emerged into the light of history only after the Saxon settlements in the 5th century AD.
Until late in the Mesolithic Period, Britain formed part of the continental landmass and was easily accessible to migrating hunters. The cutting of the land bridge, c. 6000–5000 BC, had important effects: migration became more difficult and remained for long impossible to large numbers. Thus Britain developed insular characteristics, absorbing and adapting rather than fully participating in successive continental cultures. And within the island geography worked to a similar end; the fertile southeast was more receptive of influence from the adjacent continent than were the less-accessible hill areas of the west and north. Yet in certain periods the use of sea routes brought these too within the ambit of the continent.
From the end of the Ice Age (c. 11,000 BC), there was a gradual amelioration of climate leading to the replacement of tundra by forest and of reindeer hunting by that of red deer and elk. Valuable insight on contemporary conditions was gained by the excavation of a lakeside settlement at Star Carr, North Yorkshire, which was occupied for about 20 successive winters by hunting people in the 8th millennium BC.
A major change occurred c. 4000 BC with the introduction of agriculture by Neolithic immigrants from the coasts of western and possibly northwestern Europe. They were pastoralists as well as tillers of the soil. Tools were commonly of flint won by mining, but axes of volcanic rock were also traded by prospectors exploiting distant outcrops. The dead were buried in communal graves of two main kinds: in the west, tombs were built out of stone and concealed under mounds of rubble; in the stoneless eastern areas the dead were buried under long barrows (mounds of earth), which normally contained timber structures. Other evidence of religion comes from enclosures (e.g., Windmill Hill, Wiltshire), which are now believed to have been centres of ritual and of seasonal tribal feasting. From them developed, late in the 3rd millennium, more clearly ceremonial ditch-enclosed earthworks known as henge monuments. Some, like Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, are of great size and enclose subsidiary timber circles. British Neolithic culture thus developed its own individuality.
Early in the 2nd millennium or perhaps even earlier, from c. 2300 BC, changes were introduced by the Beaker folk from the Low Countries and the middle Rhine. These people buried their dead in individual graves, often with the drinking vessel that gives their culture its name. The earliest of them still used flint; later groups, however, brought a knowledge of metallurgy and were responsible for the exploitation of gold and copper deposits in Britain and Ireland. They may also have introduced an Indo-European language. Trade was dominated by the chieftains of Wessex, whose rich graves testify to their success. Commerce was far-flung, in one direction to Ireland and Cornwall and in the other to central Europe and the Baltic, whence amber was imported. Amber bead spacers from Wessex have been found in the shaft graves at Mycenae in Greece. It was, perhaps, this prosperity that enabled the Wessex chieftains to construct the remarkable monument of shaped sarsens (large sandstones) known as Stonehenge III. Originally a late Neolithic henge, Stonehenge was uniquely transformed in Beaker times with a circle of large bluestone monoliths transported from southwest Wales.
Little is known in detail of the early and middle Bronze Age. Because of present ignorance of domestic sites, these periods are mainly defined by technological advances and changes in tools or weapons. In general, the southeast of Britain continued in close contact with the continent and the north and west with Ireland.
From about 1200 BC there is clearer evidence for agriculture in the south; the farms consisted of circular huts in groups with small oblong fields and stock enclosures. This type of farm became standard in Britain down to and into the Roman period. From the 8th century onward, British communities developed close contacts with their continental European neighbours. Some of the earliest hill forts in Britain were constructed in this period (e.g., Beacon Hill, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire; or Finavon, Angus); though formally belonging to the late Bronze Age, they usher in the succeeding period.
Knowledge of iron, introduced in the 7th century, was a merely incidental fact: it does not signify a change of population. The centuries 700–400 BC saw continued development of contact with continental Europe. Yet the greater availability of iron facilitated land clearance and thus the growth of population. The earliest ironsmiths made daggers of the Hallstatt type but of a distinctively British form. The settlements were also of a distinctively British type, with the traditional round house, the “Celtic” system of farming with its small fields, and storage pits for grain.
The century following 600 BC saw the building of many large hill forts; these suggest the existence of powerful chieftains and the growth of strife as increasing population created pressures on the land. By 300 BC swords were making their appearance once more in place of daggers. Finally, beginning in the 3rd century, a British form of La Tène Celtic art was developed to decorate warlike equipment such as scabbards, shields, and helmets, and eventually also bronze mirrors and even domestic pottery. During the 2nd century the export of Cornish tin, noted before 300 by Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek explorer, continued; evidence of its destination is provided by the Paul (Cornwall) hoard of north Italian silver coins. In the 1st century BC this trade was in the hands of the Veneti of Brittany; their conquest (56 BC) by Julius Caesar, who destroyed their fleet, seems to have put an end to it.
By 200 Britain had fully developed its insular “Celtic” character. The emergence, however, of the British tribes known to Roman historians was due to limited settlement by tribesmen from Belgic Gaul. Coin finds suggest that southeast Britain was socially and economically bound to Belgic Gaul. The result was a distinctive culture in southeast Britain (especially in Kent and north of the Thames) which represented a later phase of the continental Celtic La Tène culture. Its people used coins and the potter’s wheel and cremated their dead, and their better equipment enabled them to begin the exploitation of heavier soils for agriculture.
Julius Caesar conquered Gaul between 58 and 50 BC and invaded Britain in 55 or 54 BC, thereby bringing the island into close contact with the Roman world. Caesar’s description of Britain at the time of his invasions is the first coherent account extant. From about 20 BC it is possible to distinguish two principal powers: the Catuvellauni north of the Thames led by Tasciovanus, successor of Caesar’s adversary Cassivellaunus, and, south of the river, the kingdom of the Atrebates ruled by Commius and his sons Tincommius, Eppillus, and Verica. Tasciovanus was succeeded in about AD 5 by his son Cunobelinus, who, during a long reign, established power all over the southeast, which he ruled from Camulodunum (Colchester). Beyond these kingdoms lay the Iceni in what is now Norfolk, the Corieltavi in the Midlands, the Dobuni (Dobunni) in the area of Gloucestershire, and the Durotriges in that of Dorset, all of whom issued coins and probably had Belgic rulers. Behind these again lay further independent tribes—the Dumnonii of Devon, the Brigantes in the north, and the Silures and Ordovices in Wales. The Belgic and semi-Belgic tribes later formed the civilized nucleus of the Roman province and thus contributed greatly to Roman Britain.
The client relationships that Caesar had established with certain British tribes were extended by Augustus. In particular, the Atrebatic kings welcomed Roman aid in their resistance to Catuvellaunian expansion. The decision of the emperor Claudius to conquer the island was the result partly of his personal ambition, partly of British aggression. Verica had been driven from his kingdom and appealed for help, and it may have been calculated that a hostile Catuvellaunian supremacy would endanger stability across the Channel. Under Aulus Plautius an army of four legions was assembled, together with a number of auxiliary regiments consisting of cavalry and infantry raised among warlike tribes subject to the empire. After delay caused by the troops’ unwillingness to cross the ocean, which they then regarded as the boundary of the human world, a landing was made at Richborough, Kent, in AD 43. The British under Togodumnus and Caratacus, sons and successors of Cunobelinus, were taken by surprise and defeated. They retired to defend the Medway crossing near Rochester but were again defeated in a hard battle. The way to Camulodunum lay open, but Plautius halted at the Thames to await the arrival of the emperor, who took personal command of the closing stages of the campaign. In one short season the main military opposition had been crushed: Togodumnus was dead and Caratacus had fled to Wales. The rest of Britain was by no means united, for Belgic expansion had created tensions. Some tribes submitted, and subduing the rest remained the task for the year 44. For this purpose smaller expeditionary forces were formed consisting of single legions or parts of legions with their auxilia(subsidiary allied troops). The best-documented campaign is that of Legion II under its legate Vespasian starting from Chichester, where the Atrebatic kingdom was restored; the Isle of Wight was taken and the hill forts of Dorset reduced. Legion IX advanced into Lincolnshire, and Legion XIV probably across the Midlands toward Leicester. Colchester was the chief base, but the fortresses of individual legions at this stage have not yet been identified.
By the year 47, when Plautius was succeeded as commanding officer by Ostorius Scapula, a frontier had been established from Exeter to the Humber, based on the road known as the Fosse Way; from this fact it appears that Claudius did not plan the annexation of the whole island but only of the arable southeast. The intransigence of the tribes of Wales, spurred on by Caratacus, however, caused Scapula to occupy the lowlands beyond the Fosse Way up to the River Severn and to move forward his forces into this area for the struggle with the Silures and Ordovices. The Roman forces were strengthened by the addition of Legion XX, released for this purpose by the foundation of a veteran settlement (colonia) at Camulodunum in the year 49. The colonia would form a strategic reserve as well as setting the Britons an example of Roman urban organization and life. A provincial centre for the worship of the emperor was also established. Scapula’s right flank was secured by the treaty relationship that had been established with Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes. Hers was the largest kingdom in Britain, occupying the whole area between Derbyshire and the Tyne; unfortunately it lacked stability, nor was it united behind its queen, who lost popularity when she surrendered the British resistance leader, Caratacus, to the Romans. Nevertheless, with occasional Roman military support, Cartimandua was maintained in power until 69 against the opposition led by her husband, Venutius, and this enabled Roman governors to concentrate on Wales.
By AD 60 much had been achieved; Suetonius Paulinus, governor from 59 to 61, was invading the island of Anglesey, the last stronghold of independence, when a serious setback occurred: this was the rebellion of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni. Under its king Prasutagus the tribe of the Iceni had enjoyed a position of alliance and independence; but on his death (60) the territory was forcibly annexed and outrages occurred. Boudicca was able to rally other tribes to her assistance; chief of these were the Trinovantes of Essex, who had many grievances against the settlers of Camulodunum for their arrogant seizure of lands. Roman forces were distant and scattered; and, before peace could be restored, the rebels had sacked Camulodunum, Verulamium (St. Albans), and London, the three chief centres of Romanized life in Britain. Paulinus acted harshly after his victory, but the procurator of the province, Julius Classicianus, with the revenues in mind and perhaps also because, as a Gaul by birth, he possessed a truer vision of provincial partnership with Rome, brought about his recall.
In the first 20 years of occupation some progress had been made in spreading Roman civilization. Towns had been founded, the imperial cult had been established, and merchants were busily introducing the Britons to material benefits. It was not, however, until the Flavian period, AD 69–96, that real advances were made in this field. With the occupation of Wales by Julius Frontinus (governor from 74 to 78) and the advance into northern Scotland by Gnaeus Julius Agricola (78–84), troops were removed from southern Britain, and self-governing civitates, administrative areas based for the most part on the indigenous tribes, took over local administration. This involved a large program of urbanization and also of education, which continued into the 2nd century; Tacitus, in his biography of Agricola, emphasizes the encouragement given to it. Roman conquest of Wales was complete by 78, but Agricola’s invasion of Scotland failed because shortage of manpower prevented him from completing the occupation of the whole island. Moreover, when the British garrison was reduced (c. AD 90) by a legion because of continental needs, it became evident that a frontier would have to be maintained in the north. After several experiments, the Solway–Tyne isthmus was chosen, and there the emperor Hadrian built his stone wall (c. 122–130).
Condition of the province
There was a marked contrast in attitude toward the Roman occupation between the lowland Britons and the inhabitants of Wales and the hill country of the north. The economy of the former was that of settled agriculture, and they were largely of Belgic stock; they soon accepted and appreciated the Roman way of life. The economy of the hill dwellers was pastoral, and the urban civilization of Rome threatened their freedom of life. Although resistance in Wales was stamped out by the end of the 1st century AD, Roman influences were nonetheless weak except in the Vale of Glamorgan. In the Pennines until the beginning of the 3rd century there were repeated rebellions, the more dangerous because of the threat of assistance from free Scotland.
Army and frontier
After the emperor Domitian had reduced the garrison in about the year 90, three legions remained; their permanent bases were established at York, Chester, and Caerleon. The legions formed the foundation of Roman military power, but they were supplemented in garrison duty by numerous smaller auxiliary regiments both of cavalry and infantry, either 1,000 or 500 strong. These latter garrisoned the wall and were stationed in a network of other forts established for police work in Wales and northern England. With 15,000 legionaries and about 40,000 auxiliaries, the army of Britain was very powerful; its presence had economic as well as political results. Hadrian’s Wall was the most impressive frontier work in the Roman Empire. Despite a period in the following two reigns when another frontier was laid out on the Glasgow–Edinburgh line—the Antonine Wall, built of turf—the wall of Hadrian came to be the permanent frontier of Roman Britain. The northern tribes only twice succeeded in passing it, and then at moments when the garrison was fighting elsewhere. In the late Roman period, when sea raiding became prevalent, the wall lost its preeminence as a defense for the province, but it was continuously held until the end of the 4th century. But although they withdrew to Hadrian’s line not later than the year 180, the Romans never abandoned interest in southern Scotland. In the 2nd century their solution was military occupation. In the 3rd, after active campaigning (208–211) by the emperor Septimius Severus and his sons during which permanent bases were built on the east coast of Scotland, the solution adopted by the emperor Caracalla was regulation of relationship by treaties. These, perhaps supported by subsidies, were enforced by supervision of the whole Lowlands by patrols based on forts beyond the wall. During the 4th century more and more reliance was placed on friendly native states, and patrols were withdrawn.
Britain was an imperial province. The governor represented the emperor, exercising supreme military as well as civil jurisdiction. As commander of three legions he was a senior general of consular rank. From the late 1st century he was assisted on the legal side by a legatus juridicus. The finances were in the hands of the provincial procurator, an independent official of equestrian status whose staff supervised imperial domains and the revenues of mines in addition to normal taxation. In the early 3rd century Britain was divided into two provinces in order to reduce the power of its governor to rebel, as Albinus had done in 196: Britannia Superior had its capital at London and a consular governor in control of two legions and a few auxiliaries; Britannia Inferior, with its capital at York, was under a praetorian governor with one legion but many more auxiliaries.
Local administration was of varied character. First came the chartered towns. By the year 98 Lincoln and Gloucester had joined Camulodunum as coloniae, and by 237 York had become a fourth. Coloniae of Roman citizens enjoyed autonomy with a constitution based on that of republican Rome, and Roman citizens had various privileges before the law. It is likely that Verulamium was chartered as a Latin municipium (free town); in such a town the annual magistrates were rewarded with Roman citizenship. The remainder of the provincials ranked as peregrini (subjects). In military districts control was in the hands of fort prefects responsible to legionary commanders; but by the late 1st century local self-government, as already stated, was granted to civitates peregrinae, whose number tended to increase with time. These also had republican constitutions, being controlled by elected councils and annual magistrates and having responsibility for raising taxes and administering local justice. In the 1st century there were also client kingdoms whose rulers were allied to Rome; Cogidubnus, Verica’s successor, who had his capital at Chichester, is the best known. But Rome regarded these as temporary expedients, and none outlasted the Flavian Period (69–96).
Pre-Roman Celtic tribes had been ruled by kings and aristocracies; the Roman civitates remained in the hands of the rich because of the heavy expense of office. But since trade and industry now yielded increasing profits and the old aristocracies no longer derived wealth from war but only from large estates, it is likely that new men rose to power. Roman citizenship was now an avenue of social advancement, and it could be obtained by 25 years’ service in the auxiliary forces as well as (more rarely) by direct grants. Soldiers and traders from other parts of the empire significantly enhanced the cosmopolitan character of the population, as did the large number of legionaries, who were already citizens and many of whom must have settled locally. The population of Roman Britain at its peak amounted perhaps to about two million.
Even before the conquest, according to the Greek geographer Strabo, Britain exported gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves, and hounds in addition to grain. A Roman gold mine is known in Wales, but its yield was not outstanding. Iron was worked in many places but only for local needs; silver, obtained from lead, was of more significance. But the basis of the economy was agriculture, and the conquest greatly stimulated production because of the requirements of the army. According to Tacitus, grain to feed the troops was levied as a tax; correspondingly more had to be grown before a profit could be made. The pastoralists in Wales and the north probably had to supply leather, which the Roman army needed in quantity for tents, boots, uniforms, and shields. A military tannery is known at Catterick. A profit could, nonetheless, be won from the land because of the increasing demand from the towns. At the same time the development of a system of large estates (villas) relieved the ancient Celtic farming system of the necessity of shouldering the whole burden. Small peasant farmers tended to till the lighter, less-productive, more easily worked soils. Villa estates were established on heavier, richer soils, sometimes on land recently won by forest clearance, itself a result of the enormous new demand for building timber from the army and the new towns and for fuel for domestic heating and for public baths. The villa owners had access to the precepts of classical farming manuals and also to the improved equipment made available by Roman technology. Their growing prosperity is vouched for by excavation: there are few villas that did not increase in size and luxury as corridors and wings were added or mosaics and bath blocks provided. At least by the 3rd century some landowners were finding great profit in wool; Diocletian’s price edict (AD 301) shows that at least two British cloth products had won an empire-wide reputation. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Cotswold district was one of the centres of this industry.
Trade in imported luxury goods ranging from wine to tableware and bronze trinkets vastly increased as traders swarmed in behind the army to exploit new markets. The profits of developing industries went similarly at first to foreign capitalists. This is clearly seen in the exploitation of silver-lead ore and even in the pottery industry. The Mendip lead field was being worked under military control as early as the year 49, but under Nero (54–68) both there and in Flintshire, and not much later also in the Derbyshire lead field, freedmen—the representatives of Roman capital—were at work. By Vespasian’s reign (69–79) organized companies (societates) of prospectors are attested. Roman citizens, who must in the context be freedmen, are also found organizing the pottery industry in the late 1st century. Large profits were made by continental businessmen in the first two centuries not only from such sources but also by the import on a vast scale of high-class pottery from Gaul and the Rhineland and on a lesser scale of glass vessels, luxury metalware, and Spanish oil and wine. A large market existed among the military, and the Britons themselves provided a second. Eventually this adverse trade balance was rectified by the gradual capture of the market by British products. Much of the exceptional prosperity of 4th-century Britain must have been due to its success in retaining available profits at home.
A final important point is the role of the Roman army in the economic development of the frontier regions. The presence as consumers of large forces in northern Britain created a revolution in previous patterns of trade and civilized settlement. Cereal production was encouraged in regions where it had been rare, and large settlements grew up in which many of the inhabitants must have been retired soldiers with an interest in the land as well as in trade and industry.
Belgic Britain had large centres of population but not towns in the Roman sense of having not merely streets and public buildings but also the amenities and local autonomy of a city. In Britain these had therefore to be provided if Roman civilization and normal methods of provincial administration were to be introduced. Thus a policy of urbanization existed in which the legions, as the nearest convenient source of architects and craftsmen, played an organizing role. The earlier towns consisted of half-timbered buildings; before AD 100 only public buildings seem to have been of stone. The administrative capitals had regular street grids, a forum with basilica (public hall), public baths, and temples; a few had theatres and amphitheatres, too. With few exceptions they were undefended. In the 3rd century, town walls were provided, not so much as a precaution in unsettled times but as a means of keeping operational the earthwork defenses already provided during a crisis at the end of the 2nd century. These towns grew in size to about 100–130 acres with populations of about 5,000; a few were twice this size. The majority of towns in Roman Britain seem to have developed out of traders’ settlements in the vicinity of early garrison-forts: those that were not selected as administrative centres remained dependent for their existence on economic factors, serving either as centres of trade or manufacture or else as markets for the agricultural peasantry. They varied considerably in size. In the north, where garrisons were permanently established, quite large trading settlements grew up in their vicinity, and at least some of these would rank as towns.
Apart from the exceptional establishment at Fishbourne, in West Sussex, whose Italian style and luxurious fittings show that it was the palace of King Cogidubnus, the houses of Romano-British villas had simple beginnings and were of a provincial type. A few owners were prosperous enough in the 2nd century to afford mosaics; but the great period of villa prosperity lay in the 4th century, when many villas grew to impressive size. Their importance was economic and has already been described. Much remains to be learned from full excavation of their subsidiary work buildings. Larger questions of tenure and organization are probably insoluble in the absence of documentary evidence, for it is dangerous to draw analogies from classical sources since conditions in Celtic Britain were very different from those of the Mediterranean world.
Religion and culture
A great variety of religious cults were to be found. In addition to numerous Celtic deities of local or wider significance, the gods of the classical pantheon were introduced and were often identified with their Celtic counterparts. In official circles the worship of the state gods of Rome and of the imperial cult was duly observed. In addition merchants and soldiers introduced oriental cults, among them Christianity. The latter, however, made little headway until the late 4th century, though the frescoes at Lullingstone in Kent and the mosaics at Hinton St. Mary in Dorset attest its presence among villa owners. Although classical temples are sometimes found in towns, the normal temple was of the Romano-Celtic type consisting of a small square shrine and surrounding portico; temples of this type are found in town and country alike.
Romanization was strongest in the towns and among the upper classes, as would be expected; there is evidence that in the countryside Celtic continued to be spoken, though it was not written. Many people were bilingual: graffiti prove that even artisans wrote Latin. Evidence of the classical education of the villa owners is provided by their mosaics, which prove an acquaintance with classical mythology and even with the Aeneid of Virgil. Sculpture and wall painting were both novelties in Roman Britain. Statues or busts in bronze or marble were imported from Gaulish or Mediterranean workshops, but British sculptors soon learned their trade and at their best produced attractive works in a provincial idiom, often for votive purposes. Many cruder works were also executed whose interest lies in the proof they afford that the conventions of the classical world had penetrated even to the lower classes. Mosaic floors, found in towns and villas, were at first, as at Fishbourne, laid by imported craftsmen. But there is evidence that by the middle of the 2nd century a local firm was at work at Colchester and Verulamium, and in the 4th century a number of local mosaic workshops can be recognized by their styles. One of the most skilled of these was based in Cirencester.
Roman civilization thus took root in Britain; its growth was more obvious in urban circles than among the peasants and weakest in the resistant highland zone. It was a provincial version of Roman culture, but one with recognizably British traits.
The decline of Roman rule
The reforms of Diocletian ended the chaos of the 3rd century and ushered in the late imperial period. Britain, however, for a short time became a separate empire through the rebellion (286/287) of Carausius. This man had been in command against the Saxon pirates in the Channel and by his naval power was able to maintain his independence. His main achievement was to complete the new system of Saxon Shore forts around the southeastern coasts. At first he sought recognition as coemperor, but this was refused. In 293 the fall of Boulogne to Roman forces led to his murder and the accession of Allectus, who, however, fell in his turn when Constantius I invaded Britain in 296. Allectus had withdrawn troops from the north to oppose the landing, and Hadrian’s Wall seems to have been attacked, for Constantius had to restore the frontier as well as reform the administration. He divided Britain into four provinces, and in the same period the civil power was separated from the military. Late Roman sources show three separate commands respectively under the dux Britanniarum (commander of the Britains), the comes litoris Saxonici (count of the Saxon Shore), and the comes Britanniarum, though the dates of their establishment are unknown and may not have been identical.
The 4th century was a period of great prosperity in towns and countryside alike. Britain had escaped the barbarian invasions of the 3rd century and may have seemed a safe refuge for wealthy continentals. Its weakness lay in the fact that its defense was ultimately controlled by distant rather than local rulers. The garrison was perhaps weakened by withdrawals for the civil war of Magnentius (350–351); at any rate in 367 a military disaster occurred due to concerted seaborne attacks from the Picts of Scotland and the Scots of Ireland. But, though the frontier and forts behind it suffered severely, there is little trace of damage to towns or villas. Count Theodosius in 369 restored order and strengthened the defenses of the towns with external towers designed to mount artillery. Prosperity continued, but the withdrawals of troops by Magnus Maximus in 383 and again at the end of the century by Stilicho weakened security. Thus, when Constantine III, who was declared emperor by the army in Britain in 407, took further troops to Gaul, the forces remaining in the island were insufficient to provide protection against increasing Pictish and Saxon raids. The Britons appealed to the legitimate emperor, Honorius, who was unable to send assistance but authorized the cities to provide for their own defense (410). This marks the end of Roman Britain, for the central government never reestablished control, but for a generation there was little other outward change.
Power fell gradually into the hands of tyrants. Chief of these was Vortigern (c. 425), who, unlike earlier usurpers, made no attempt to become Roman emperor but was content with power in Britain. Independence was producing separate interests. By this date Christianity had made considerable headway in the island, but the leaders followed the heretical teaching of Pelagius, himself a Briton, who had emphasized the importance of the human will over divine grace in the achievement of salvation. It has been held that the self-reliance shown in the maintenance of national independence was inspired by this philosophy. Yet there was also a powerful Roman Catholic party anxious to reforge the links with Rome, in support of whom St. Germanus of Auxerre visited Britain in 429. It may have been partly to thwart the plans of this party that Vortigern made the mistake (c. 430; the date given by the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine scholar Bede [d. 735] is between 446 and 454) of inviting Saxons to settle and garrison strategic areas of the east coast, though he certainly also had in mind the need to ward off seaborne raids by Picts, which at this time were troublesome.
Planned settlement of this sort is the best explanation for the earliest Saxon settlements found around the mouths of the east-coast estuaries and also in the central southeast region around Oxford. For a time the system worked successfully, but, when in 442 these Saxon foederati (allies) rebelled and called in others of their race to help them, it was found that they had been given a stranglehold on Britain. A long period of warfare and chaos was inaugurated, which was economically disastrous. It was probably this period that saw the disintegration of the majority of the villa estates; with the breakdown of markets and the escape of slaves, villas ceased to be viable and must have gradually fallen into ruin, though the land itself did not cease to be cultivated. A few villas met a violent end. The towns, under the protection of their strong defenses, at first provided refuge at any rate for the rich who could leave their lands; but by degrees decay set in as trade declined and finally even the supply of food was threatened. About 446 the British made a vain appeal for help to the Roman general Aetius (the “Groans of the Britons” mentioned in the De excidio et conquestu Britanniae of the British writer Gildas). For several decades they suffered reverses; many emigrated to Brittany. In the second half of the 5th century Ambrosius Aurelianus and the shadowy figure of Arthur began to turn the tide by the use of cavalry against the ill-armed Saxon infantry. A great victory was won at Mons Badonicus (a site not identifiable) toward 500: now it was Saxons who emigrated, and the British lived in peace all through the first half of the 6th century, as Gildas records. But in the second half the situation slowly worsened.
Sheppard Sunderland FrereThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
The invaders and their early settlements
Although Germanic foederati, allies of Roman and post-Roman authorities, had settled in England in the 4th century AD, tribal migrations into Britain began about the middle of the 5th century. The first arrivals, according to the 6th-century British writer Gildas, were invited by a British king to defend his kingdom against the Picts and Scots. A tradition reached Bede that the first mercenaries were from three tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—which he locates on the Cimbric Peninsula, and by implication the coastlands of northwestern Germany. Archaeology, however, suggests a more complex picture showing many tribal elements, Frankish leadership in the first waves, and Frisian contacts. Revolt by these mercenaries against their British employers in the southeast of England led to large-scale Germanic settlements near the coasts and along the river valleys. Their advance was halted for a generation by native resistance, which tradition associates with the names of Ambrosius Aurelianus and Arthur, culminating in victory about 500 by the Britons at the Battle of Mons Badonicus at an unidentified location. But a new Germanic drive began about 550, and before the century had ended, the Britons had been driven west to the borders of Dumnonia (Cornwall and Devon) and to the Welsh Marches, while invaders were advancing west of the Pennines and northward into Lothian.
The fate of the native British population is difficult to determine. The case against its large-scale survival rests largely on linguistic evidence, such as the scarcity of Romano-British words continuing into English and the use of English even by Northumbrian peasants. The case against wholesale extermination also rests on linguistic evidence, such as place-names and personal names, as well as on evidence provided by urban and rural archaeology. Certainly few Britons in England were above servile condition. By the end of the 7th century people regarded themselves as belonging to “the nation of the English,” though divided into several kingdoms. This sense of unity was strengthened during long periods when all kingdoms south of the Humber acknowledged the overlordship (called by Bede an imperium) of a single ruler, known as a bretwalda, a word first recorded in the 9th century.
The first such overlord was Aelle of Sussex, in the late 5th century; the second was Ceawlin of Wessex, who died in 593. The third overlord, Aethelberht of Kent, held this power in 597 when the monk Augustine led a mission from Rome to Kent; Kent was the first English kingdom to be converted to Christianity. The Christian church provided another unifying influence, overriding political divisions, although it was not until 669 that the church in England acknowledged a single head.
The social system
Aethelberht set down in writing a code of laws; although it reflects Christian influence, the system underlying the laws was already old, brought over from the Continent in its main lines. The strongest social bond of this system was that of kinship; every freeman depended on his kindred for protection, and the social classes were distinguished by the amount of their wergild (the sum that the kindred could accept in place of vengeance if a man were killed). The normal freeman was the ceorl, an independent peasant landowner; below him in Kent were persons with lower wergilds, who were either freedmen or, as were similar persons in Wessex, members of a subject population; above the ceorls were the nobles—some perhaps noble by birth but more often men who had risen by service as companions of the king—with a wergild three times that of a ceorl in Kent, six times that of a ceorl elsewhere. The tie that bound a man to his lord was as strong as that of the kindred. Both nobles and ceorls might possess slaves, who had no wergild and were regarded as chattels.
Early traditions, embodied in king lists, imply that all Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except Sussex were established by rulers deemed to have descended from the gods. No invading chieftain is described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “king”—although the title was soon used—and chieftainship, as before the conquest, remained central to Germanic tribal society. The sacral character of kingship later increased and changed in meaning as the Christian ruler was set apart by coronation and anointment. In the established English kingdoms the king had special rights—compensations for offenses committed in his presence or his home or against anyone under his protection; rights to hospitality, which later became a food rent charged on all land; and rights to various services. He rewarded his followers with grants of land, probably at first for their lifetime only, but the need to provide permanent endowment for the church brought into being a type of land that was free from most royal dues and that did not revert to the king. From the latter part of the 7th century such land was sometimes conferred by charter. It became common to make similar grants by charter to laymen, with power to bequeath; but three services—the building of forts and bridges and service in the army—were almost invariably excepted from the immunity. The king received fines for various crimes; but a man’s guilt was established in an assembly of freemen, where the accused tried to establish his innocence by his oath—supported by oath helpers—and, if this failed, by ordeal. On matters of importance the king normally consulted his witan(wise men).
There were local variations in the law, and over a period of time the law developed to meet changed circumstances. As kingdoms grew larger, for example, an official called an ealderman was needed to administer part of the area, and later a sheriff was needed to look after the royal rights in each shire. The acceptance of Christianity made it necessary to fit the clergy into the scale of compensations and assign a value to their oaths and to fix penalties for offenses such as sacrilege, heathen practices, and breaches of the marriage law. But the basic principles were little changed.
The Anglo-Saxons left England a land of villages, but the continuity of village development is uncertain. In the 7th–8th centuries, in what is called the “Middle Saxon shuffle,” many early villages were abandoned, and others, from which later medieval villages descended, were founded. The oldest villages are not, as previously thought, those with names ending in -ingas but rather those ending in -ham and -ingham. English trading towns, whose names often end in -wich, from the Latin vicus (“village”), developed in the Middle Saxon period, and other urban settlements grew out of and date from the Alfredian and later defenses against Viking attack.
The conversion to Christianity
Place-names containing the names of gods or other heathen elements are plentiful enough to prove the vitality of heathenism and to account for the slow progress of conversion in some areas. In Kent, the first kingdom to accept Christianity, King Wihtred’s laws in 695 contained clauses against heathen worship. The conversion renewed relations with Rome and the Continent; but the full benefit of this was delayed because much of England was converted by the Celtic church, which had lost contact with Rome.
Augustine’s mission in 597 converted Kent; but it had only temporary success in Essex, which reverted to heathenism in 616. A mission sent under Bishop Paulinus from Kent to Northumbria in 627 converted King Edwin and many of his subjects in Northumbria and Lindsey. It received a setback in 632 when Edwin was killed and Paulinus withdrew to Kent. About 630 Archbishop Honorius of Canterbury sent a Burgundian, Felix, to convert East Anglia, and the East Anglian church thenceforth remained faithful to Canterbury. Soon after, the West Saxons were converted by Birinus, who came from Rome. Meanwhile, King Oswald began to restore Christianity in Northumbria, bringing Celtic missionaries from Iona. And it was the Celtic church that began in 653 to spread the faith among the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and the peoples of the Severn valley; it also won back Essex.
At first there was little friction between the Roman and Celtic missions. Oswald of Northumbria joined with Cynegils of Wessex in giving Dorchester-on-Thames as seat for Birinus’ bishopric; the Irishmen Maildubh in Wessex and Fursey in East Anglia worked in areas converted by the Roman church; and James the Deacon continued Paulinus’ work in Northumbria. Later, however, differences in usage—especially in the calculation of the date of Easter—caused controversy, which was settled in favour of the Roman party at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The adherents of Celtic usage either conformed or withdrew, and advocates of Roman practice became active in the north, the Midlands, and Essex. Theodore of Tarsus (arrived 669), the first Roman archbishop to be acknowledged all over England, was active in establishing a proper diocesan system, whereas in the Celtic church bishops tended to move freely without fixed sees and settled boundaries; he held the first synod of the English church at Hertford in 672, and this forbade a bishop to interfere in another’s diocese or any priest to move into another diocese without his bishop’s permission. Sussex and the Isle of Wight—the last outposts of heathenism—were converted by Bishop Wilfrid and his followers from 681 to 687 and thenceforth followed Roman usages.
The Anglo-Saxons attributed their conversion to Pope Gregory I, “the Apostle of the English,” who had sent Augustine. This may seem less than fair to the Celtic mission. The Celtic church made a great impression by its asceticism, fervour, and simplicity, and it had a lasting influence on scholarship. Yet the period of Celtic dominance was only 30 years. The decision at Whitby made possible a form of organization better fitted for permanent needs than the looser system of the Celtic church.
The golden age of Bede
Within a century of Augustine’s landing, England was in the forefront of scholarship. This high standard arose from a combination of influences: that from Ireland, which had escaped the decay caused elsewhere by the barbarian invasions, and that from the Mediterranean, which reached England mainly through Archbishop Theodore and his companion, the abbot Adrian. Under Theodore and Adrian, Canterbury became a famous school, and men trained there took their learning to other parts of England. One of these men was Aldhelm, who had been a pupil of Maildubh (the Irish founder of Malmesbury); under Aldhelm, Malmesbury became an influential centre of learning. Aldhelm’s own works, in Latin verse and prose, reveal a familiarity with many Latin authors; his writings became popular among admirers of the ornate and artificial style he had learned from his Celtic teachers. Before long a liberal education could be had at such other West Saxon monasteries as Nursling and Wimborne.
The finest centre of scholarship was Northumbria. There Celtic and classical influences met: missionaries brought books from Ireland, and many Englishmen went to Ireland to study. Other Northumbrians went abroad, especially to Rome; among them was Benedict Biscop. Benedict returned from Rome with Theodore (668–669), spent some time in Canterbury, and then brought the learning acquired there to Northumbria. He founded the monasteries at Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow (682), where Bede spent his life. Benedict and Ceolfrith, abbot of Jarrow, brought books from the Continent and assembled the fine library that was available to Bede.
Bede (c. 672–735) is remembered as a great historian whose work never lost its value; but he was also a theologian regarded throughout the Middle Ages as second only to the Church Fathers. Nonetheless, even though he was outstanding, he did not work in isolation. Other Northumbrian houses—Lindisfarne, Whitby, and Ripon—produced saints’ lives, and Bede was in touch with many learned men, not only in Northumbria; there are also signs of scholarly activity in London and in East Anglia.
Moreover, in this period religious poetry was composed in the diction and technique of the older secularpoetry in the vernacular. Beowulf, considered the greatest Old English poem, is sometimes assigned to this age, but the dating is uncertain. Art flourished, with a combination of native elements and influences from Ireland and the Mediterranean. The Hiberno-Saxon (or Anglo-Irish) style of manuscript illuminationwas evolved, its greatest example—the Lindisfarne Gospels—also showing classical influence. Masons from Gaul and Rome built stone churches. In Northumbria stone monuments with figure sculpture and vine-scroll patterns were set up. Churches were equipped with precious objects—some from abroad, some of native manufacture (even in heathen times the English had been skilled metalworkers). Manuscripts and works of art were taken abroad to churches founded by the English missions, and these churches, in turn, became centres of production. The great Sutton Hoo ship burial, discovered in 1939 at the burial site of the East Anglian royal house and perhaps the cenotaph of the bretwalda Raedwald (d. c. 625), is further evidence of influences from abroad, revealing important Anglo-Saxon contacts with Scandinavia, Byzantium, France, and the Mediterranean.
The supremacy of Northumbria and the rise of Mercia
When Northumbria became eminent in scholarship, its age of political importance was over. This political dominance had begun when Aethelfrith, ruling over the united Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, defeated the Dalriadic Scots at Degsastan in 603 and the Welsh at Chester in 613–616. Aethelfrith was himself defeated and killed in 616 by Edwin, the exiled heir to Deira, with the help of Raedwald of East Anglia, then overlord of the southern peoples.
Edwin continued to defeat the Welsh and became the acknowledged overlord of all England except Kent: he annexed the British kingdom of Elmet, invaded North Wales, and captured Anglesey and the Isle of Man. But he fell at Hatfield in 632 before the forces of Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, and of Penda, a Mercian chieftain. A year later Aethelfrith’s son Oswald destroyed Cadwallon and restored the kingdom of Northumbria, and he became overlord of all the lands south of the River Humber. But Mercia was becoming a serious rival; originally a small kingdom in the northwest Midlands, it had absorbed the peoples of the Severn valley, including the Hwicce, a West Saxon people annexed in 628 after a victory by Penda at Cirencester.
Penda threw off Northumbrian control when he defeated and killed Oswald in 641. He drove out Cenwalhof Wessex, who took refuge in East Anglia from 645 to 648. Penda’s control of Middle Anglia, where he made his son subking in 653, brought him to the East Anglian frontier; he invaded this kingdom three times, killing three of its kings. He was able to draw an army from a wide area, including East Anglia, when he invaded Northumbria in 654; nevertheless, he was defeated and killed by Oswiu, Oswald’s successor.
For a short time Oswiu was overlord of southern England, but a Mercian revolt put Penda’s son Wulfhereon the throne in 657, and he greatly extended Mercian power to the southeast and south. Wulfhere became overlord of Essex, with London, and of Surrey. He also held the West Saxon lands along the middle Thames and blocked any eastward advance of the West Saxons by capturing the Isle of Wightand the mainland opposite and giving them to his godson, Aethelwalh of Sussex. Yet Wulfhere’s reign ended in disaster; the Kentish monk Aedde, in his Life of St. Wilfrid, said Wulfhere roused all the southern peoples in an attack on Ecgfrith of Northumbria in 674 but was defeated and died soon after.
Ecgfrith took possession of Lindsey, a section of modern Lincolnshire, but he lost it to Aethelred of Mercia after the Battle of the Trent in 678. Thenceforward Northumbria was no threat to Mercian dominance because it was occupied in fighting the Picts in the north. After Ecgfrith was slain by them in 685, his successors took little part in external affairs.
Yet Mercian power was threatened from the south. Caedwalla had added Surrey, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight to the West Saxon kingdom and thus came near to uniting all lands south of the Thames into a single kingdom that might have held its own against Mercia. But this kingdom was short-lived. Kentbecame free from foreign interference in 694, two years after the accession of Wihtred, who reestablished the Kentish royal line. Sussex appears again as an independent kingdom; and Caedwalla’s successor, Ine, was mainly occupied in extending his territory to the west. After Wihtred’s death in 725 and Ine’s abdication in 726, both Kent and Wessex had internal troubles and could not resist the Mercian kings Aethelbald and Offa.
The great age of Mercia
Aethelbald succeeded in 716 to the rule of all the Midlands and to the control of Essex and London. By 731 all provinces south of the Humber were subject to him. Some of his charters use a regnal style suited to this dignity, such as “king not only of the Mercians but also of all provinces . . . of the South English” and rex Britanniae (a Latinization of bretwalda). Aethelbald held this position, with only occasional warfare, until his death, in 757—far longer than any previous holder of the imperium. St. Boniface praised the good order he maintained in his kingdom, though complaining of his immoral life and his encroachment on church privileges. Aethelbald was murdered by his own household.
Offa did not at once attain the powerful position that later caused Charles the Great (Charlemagne) to treat with him on equal terms; Cynewulf of Wessex recovered West Saxon lands by the middle Thames and did not submit until 779. Offa was overlord in Kent by 764, in Sussex and the district of Hastings by 771; he apparently lost his authority in Kent after the Battle of Otford in 776 but recovered it in 785. His use of an East Anglian mint shows him supreme there. He claimed greater powers than earlier overlords—subkings among the Hwicce and in Sussex dropped their royal titles and appeared as ealdermen, and he referred to a Kentish king as his thegn. The English scholar Alcuin spoke of the blood shed by Offa to secure the succession of his son, and fugitives from his kingdom sought asylum with Charles the Great. Charles treated Offa as if he were sole king of England, at least of the region south of the Humber; the only other king he acknowledged was the Northumbrian ruler. Offa seemed not to have claimed authority beyond the Humber but instead allied himself with King Aethelred of Northumbria by giving him his daughter in 794.
Offa appears on the continental scene more than had any previous English king. Charles wrote to him as “his dearest brother” and wished for a marriage between his own son Charles and Offa’s daughter. Offa’s refusal, unless Charles let one of his daughters marry Offa’s son Ecgfrith, led to a three-year quarrel in which Charles closed his ports to traders from England. This and a letter about regulating trade, written when the quarrel was over, provide evidence for the importance of cross-Channel trade, which was one reason for Offa’s reform of the coinage.
Imitating the action of Pippin III in 755, Offa took responsibility for the coinage, and thenceforward the king’s name normally appeared on coins. But the excellent quality in design and workmanship of his coins, especially those with his portrait, served an additional purpose: they had a propaganda value in bringing home the preeminence of the Mercian king not only to his English subjects but also to people on the Continent. Pope Adrian I regarded Offa with awe and respect.
Because Offa’s laws are lost, little is known of his internal government, though Alcuin praises it. Offa was able to draw on immense resources to build a dike to demarcate his frontier against Wales. In the greatness of its conception and the skill of its construction, the dike forms a fitting memorial to him. It probably belongs to his later years, and it secured Mercia from sudden incursions.
The church and scholarship in Offa’s time
Northumbria was still preeminent in scholarship, and the fame of the school of York, founded by Bede’s pupil Archbishop Egbert, attracted students from the Continent and from Ireland. Eventually it supplied Alcuin to take charge of the revival of learning inaugurated by Charles the Great; Alcuin’s writings exercised great influence on theological, biblical, and liturgical studies, and his pupils carried on his work well into the 9th century.
Learning was not confined to Northumbria; one Latin work was produced in East Anglia, and recent attribution of manuscripts to Lichfield suggests that Mercian scholarship has been underestimated. Offa himself took an interest in education, and men from all areas corresponded with the missionaries. The Mercian schools that supplied Alfred with scholars in the 9th century may go back to this period. Vernacular poetry was composed, perhaps including Beowulf and the poems of Cynewulf.
A steady advance was made in the creation of parishes, and monasticism flourished and received support from Offa. A great event in ecclesiastical history was the arrival of a papal legation in 787, the first since the conversion. It drew up reforming statutes, which were accepted by the two ecclesiastical provinces, meeting separately under the presidency of Offa and Aelfwald of Northumbria. Offa used the visit to secure the consecration of his son—the first recorded coronation ceremony in England—and also to have Mercia made into a metropolitan province with its see at Lichfield. The latter seemed desirable partly because he disliked the Kentish archbishop of Canterbury, Jaenberht, but also because it would seem fitting to him that the leading kingdom should be free from external interference in ecclesiastical affairs. This move was unpopular with the church, and in 802, when relations with Canterbury had improved, the archbishopric of Lichfield was abolished.
The decline of Mercia and the rise of Wessex
Offa died in 796, and his son died a few weeks later. Cenwulf, their successor, suppressed revolts in Kent and East Anglia, but he never attained Offa’s position. Cenwulf allowed Charles to intervene in Northumbria in 808 and restore Eardwulf (who had been driven from his kingdom) to the throne—a unique incident in Anglo-Saxon history. Mercian influence in Wessex was ended when Egbert became king there in 802, though there is no recorded warfare between the kingdoms for many years, during which Egbert conquered Cornwall and Cenwulf fought in Wales. But in 825 Egbert defeated Beornwulf of Mercia and then sent an army into Kent, with the result that he was accepted as king of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex. In that same year the East Angles threw off the Mercian yoke, killing Beornwulf. In 829 Egbert became ruler of Mercia and all regions south of the Humber, which caused the chronicler to add his name to Bede’s list of kings who held the imperium, calling him bretwalda. The Northumbrians accepted Egbert without fighting. Yet he held this proud position only one year; then Wiglaf recovered the Mercian throne and ruled without subjection to Egbert.
By this time Danish Viking raids were a grave menace, and Aethelwulf, who succeeded his father Egbert in 839, had the wisdom to see that Mercia and Wessex must combine against the Vikings. Friendly relations between them were established by marriage alliances and by a peaceful settlement of boundaries; this paved the way for the acceptance in 886 of Alfred, king of Wessex, as lord of all the English who had not fallen under Danish rule.
The period of the Scandinavian invasions
Viking invasions and settlements
Small scattered Viking raids began in the last years of the 8th century; in the 9th century large-scale plundering incursions were made in Britain and in the Frankish empire as well. Though Egbert defeated a large Viking force in 838 that had combined with the Britons of Cornwall and Aethelwulf won a great victory in 851 over a Viking army that had stormed Canterbury and London and put the Mercian king to flight, it was difficult to deal with an enemy that could attack anywhere on a long and undefended coastline. Destructive raids are recorded for Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, and Wessex.
A large Danish army came to East Anglia in the autumn of 865, apparently intent on conquest. By 871, when it first attacked Wessex, it had already captured York, been bought off by Mercia, and had taken possession of East Anglia. Many battles were fought in Wessex, including one that led to a Danish defeat at Ashdown in 871. Alfred the Great, a son of Aethelwulf, succeeded to the throne in the course of the year and made peace; this gave him a respite until 876. Meanwhile the Danes drove out Burgred of Mercia, putting a puppet king in his place, and one of their divisions made a permanent settlement in Northumbria.
Alfred was able to force the Danes to leave Wessex in 877, and they settled northeastern Mercia; but a Viking attack in the winter of 878 came near to conquering Wessex. That it did not succeed is to be attributed to Alfred’s tenacity. He retired to the Somerset marshes, and in the spring he secretly assembled an army that routed the Danes at Edington. Their king, Guthrum, accepted Christianity and took his forces to East Anglia, where they settled.
The importance of Alfred’s victory cannot be exaggerated. It prevented the Danes from becoming masters of the whole of England. Wessex was never again in danger of falling under Danish control, and in the next century the Danish areas were reconquered from Wessex. Alfred’s capture of London in 886 and the resultant acceptance of him by all the English outside the Danish areas was a preliminary to this reconquest. That Wessex stood when the other kingdoms had fallen must be put down to Alfred’s courage and wisdom, to his defensive measures in reorganizing his army, to his building fortresses and ships, and to his diplomacy, which made the Welsh kings his allies. Renewed attacks by Viking hosts in 892–896, supported by the Danes resident in England, caused widespread damage but had no lasting success.
Alfred’s government and his revival of learning
Good internal government contributed to Alfred’s successful resistance to the Danes. He reorganized his finances and the services due from thegns, issued an important code of laws, and scrutinized carefully the exercise of justice. Alfred saw the Viking invasions as a punishment from God, especially because of a neglect of learning, without which men could not know and follow the will of God. He deplored the decay of Latin and enjoined its study by those destined for the church, but he also wished all young freemen of adequate means to learn to read English, and he aimed at supplying men with “the books most necessary for all men to know,” in their own language.
Alfred had acquired an education despite great difficulties, and he translated some books himself with the help of scholars from Mercia, the Continent, and Wales. Among them they made available works of Bede and Orosius, Gregory and Augustine, and the De consolatione philosophiae of Boethius. Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle began in his reign. The effects of Alfred’s educational reforms can be glimpsed in succeeding reigns, and his works continued to be copied. Only in his attempt to revive monasticism did he achieve little, for the monastic idea had lost its appeal—in England as well as on the Continent—during the Viking Age.
The achievement of political unity
The reconquest of the Danelaw
When Alfred died in 899, his son Edward succeeded him. A large-scale incursion by the Danes of Northumbria ended in their crushing defeat at Tettenhall in 910. Edward completed his father’s plan of building a ring of fortresses around Wessex, and his sister Aethelflaed took similar measures in Mercia. In 912 Edward was ready to begin the series of campaigns by which he relentlessly advanced into the Danelaw (Danish territory in England), securing each advance by a fortress, until he won back Essex, East Anglia, and the east-Midland Danish areas. Aethelflaed moved similarly against the Danish territory of the Five Boroughs (Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Lincoln, and Stamford). She obtained Derby and Leicester and gained a promise of submission from the Northumbrian Danes before she died in 918. Edward had by then reached Stamford, but he broke off his advance to secure his acceptance by the Mercians at Tamworth and to prevent their setting up an independent kingdom. Then he took Nottingham, and all the Danes in Mercia submitted to him.
Meanwhile another danger had arisen: Norsemen from Ireland had been settling for some time west of the Pennines, and Northumbria was threatened by Raegnald, a Norse leader from Dublin, who made himself king at York in 919. Edward built fortresses at Thelwall and Manchester, and in 920 he received Raegnald’s submission, along with that of the Scots, the Strathclyde Welsh, and all the Northumbrians. Yet Norse kings reigned at York intermittently until 954.
The kingdom of England
Athelstan succeeded his father Edward in 924. He made terms with Raegnald’s successor Sihtric and gave him his sister in marriage. When Sihtric died in 927, Athelstan took possession of Northumbria, thus becoming the first king to have direct rule of all England. He received the submission of the kings of Wales and Scotland and of the English ruler of Northumbria beyond the Tyne.
Athelstan was proud of his position, calling himself “king of all Britain” on some of his coins and using in his charters flamboyant rhetoric carrying the same message; he held great courts attended by dignitaries from all over England and by Welsh kings; he subjected the Welsh to tribute and quelled a revolt of the Britons of Cornwall. His sisters were married to continental princes—Charles the Simple, king of the Franks; Otto, son of Henry the Fowler; and Hugh, duke of the Franks. Among those brought up at his court were Louis, Charles’s son; Alan of Brittany, Athelstan’s godson; and Haakon, son of Harald Fairhair of Norway; they all returned to win their respective inheritances with his support. He was a generous donor to continental and English churches. But Athelstan is remembered chiefly as the victor at Brunanburh, against a combine of Olaf Guthfrithson, king of Dublin; Owain of Strathclyde; and Constantine, king of the Scots, whom Athelstan had defeated in 934. They invaded England in 937, and their defeat is celebrated by a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Immediately after Athelstan’s death in 939 Olaf seized not only Northumbria but also the Five Boroughs. By 944 Athelstan’s successor, his younger brother Edmund, had regained control, and in 945 Edmund conquered Strathclyde and gave it to Malcolm of Scotland. But Edmund’s successor, Eadred, lost control of Northumbria for part of his reign to the Norse kings Erik Bloodax (son of Harald Fairhair) and Olaf Sihtricson. When Erik was killed in 954, Northumbria became a permanent part of the kingdom of England.
By becoming rulers of all England, the West Saxon kings had to administer regions with variant customs, governed under West Saxon, Mercian, or Danish law. In some parts of the area of Danish occupation, especially in northern England and the district of the Five Boroughs, the evidence of place-names, personal names, and dialect seems to indicate dense Danish settlement, but this has been seriously questioned; many “Danish” features are also found in Anglo-Saxon areas, and Danish names do not always prove Danish institutions. Moreover, the older Anglo-Saxon regions, such as Mercia, which often cut across both Danish and English areas, were politically more significant. Money, however, was calculated in marks and ores instead of shillings in Danish areas, and arable land was divided into plowlands and oxgangs instead of hides and virgates in the northern and northeastern parts of the Danelaw. Most important was the presence in some areas of a number of small landholders with a much greater degree of independence than their counterparts elsewhere; many ceorls had so suffered under the Danish ravages that they had bought a lord’s support by sacrificing some of their independence. Excavations (1976–81) have shown 10th-century Jorvik (York), a Danish settlement, to have been a centre of international trade, economic specialization, and town planning; it was on its way to becoming by 1086 (in the Domesday survey) one of Europe’s largest cities, numbering at least 2,000 households.
The kings did not try to eradicate the local peculiarities. King Edgar (reigned 959–975) expressly granted local autonomy to the Danes. But from Athelstan’s time it was decreed that there was to be one coinage for all the king’s dominion, and a measure of uniformity in administrative divisions was gradually achieved. Mercia became divided into shires on the pattern of those of Wessex. It is uncertain how early the smaller divisions of the shires were called “hundreds,” but they now became universal (except in the northern Danelaw, where an area called a wapentake carried on its fiscal and jurisdictional functions). An ordinance of the mid-10th century laid down that the court in each hundred (called “hundred courts”) must meet every four weeks to handle local legal matters, and Edgar enjoined that the shire courts must meet twice a year and the borough courts three times. This pattern of local government survived the Norman Conquest.
The church and the monastic revival
To those who judged the church solely by the state of its monasteries, the first half of the 10th century seemed a period of inertia. In fact, the great tasks of converting the heathen settlers, restoring ecclesiastical organization in Danish areas, and repairing the damages of the invasions elsewhere must have absorbed much energy. Even so, learning and book production were not at so low an ebb as monastic reformers claimed. Moreover, new monasteries were founded and benefactions were made to older ones, even though, by post-revival standards, none of these monasteries was enforcing a strict monastic rule and several benefactions were held by secular priests. Alfred had failed to arouse much enthusiasm for monasticism. The movement for reform began in England about 940 and soon came under the influence of reforms in Fleury and Lorraine. King Edgar, an enthusiastic supporter, promoted the three chief reformers to important positions—Dunstan to Canterbury, Aethelwold to Winchester, and Oswald to Worcester and later to York. The secular clergy were violently ejected from Winchester and some other places; Oswald gradually replaced them with monks at Worcester. All three reformers founded new houses, including the great monasteries in the Fenlands, where older houses had perished in the Danish invasion; but Oswald had no success in Northumbria. The reformers, however, were concerned with more than monasticism—they paid great attention to other needs of their dioceses; the scholars Abbot Aelfric and Archbishop Wulfstan, trained by the reformers, directed much of their writings to improving the education and morals of the parish clergy and, through them, of the people.
The monastic revival resulted in a great revival of both vernacular and Latin literature, of manuscript production and illumination, and of other forms of art. It reached its zenith in the troubled years of King Ethelred II (reigned 978–1016), after a brief, though violent, reaction to monasticism following Edgar’s death. In the 11th century monasteries continued to be productive and new houses were founded; there was also a movement to impose a communal life on bodies of secular priests and to found houses of secular canons.
The Anglo-Danish state
The Danish conquest and the reigns of the Danish kings
Ethelred succeeded as a child in 978, after the murder of his stepbrother Edward. He took the throne in an atmosphere of insecurity and distrust, which partly accounts for the incompetence and treachery rife in his reign. Viking raids began in 980 and steadily increased in intensity. They were led by formidableleaders: from 991 to 994 by Olaf Tryggvason, later king of Norway, and frequently from 994 by Sweyn, king of Denmark. Ethelred’s massacre of the Danes in England on St. Brice’s Day, 1002, called for vengeance by Sweyn and, from 1009 to 1012, by a famous Viking, Thorkell the Tall. In 1013 the English, worn out by continuous warfare and heavy tributes to buy off the invaders, accepted Sweyn as king. Ethelred, his wife Emma, and his younger sons sought asylum with Richard, duke of Normandy, brother of Emma. Ethelred was recalled to England after Sweyn’s death in 1014; but Sweyn’s son Canute (Cnut) renewed the invasions and, in spite of valiant resistance by Ethelred’s son and successor, Edmund, obtained half of England after a victory at Ashingdon in October 1016 and the rest after Edmund’s death that November.
Canute rewarded some of his followers with English lands and ruthlessly got rid of some prominent Englishmen, among them Edmund’s brother Edwy. (Edmund’s infant sons, however, were carried away to safety in Hungary.) Yet Canute’s rule was not tyrannical, and his reign was remembered as a time of good order. The Danish element in his entourage diminished; and the Englishmen Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Godwine, Earl of Wessex, became the most powerful magnates. Canute married Ethelred’s widow, Emma, thus removing the danger of Norman support for her sons by Ethelred. Canute fought a successful campaign in Scotland in 1031, and Englishmen were drawn into his wars in Scandinavia, which made him lord of Norway. But at home there was peace. Probably under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan he became a stout supporter of the church, which in his reign had the vitality to engage in missionary work in Scandinavia. Religious as well as political motives may have caused his pilgrimage to Rome in 1027 to attend the coronation of the emperor Conrad; from the pope, the emperor, and the princes whom he met he obtained concessions for English pilgrims and traders going to Rome. Canute’s laws, drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan, are mainly based on those of earlier kings, especially Edgar.
Already in 1018 the English and Danes had come to an agreement “according to Edgar’s law.” No important changes were made in the machinery of government except that small earldoms were combined to make great earldoms, a change that placed much power in the hands of their holders. No attempt was made to restore the English line when Canute died in 1035; he was followed by his sons Harold and Hardecanute, whose reigns were unpopular. Denmark passed to Sweyn, son of Canute’s sister Estrith, in 1043. Meanwhile the Norwegians in 1035 had driven out another Sweyn, the son whom Canute had set to rule over them with his mother, Aelfgifu, and had elected Magnus.
The close links with Scandinavia had benefited English trade, but they left one awkward heritage: Hardecanute and Magnus made an agreement that if either died without a son, the survivor was to succeed to both kingdoms. Hardecanute died without a son in 1042, but he was succeeded by Ethelred’s son Edward, who was known as the Confessor or the Saint because of his reputation for chastity. Magnus was prevented by trouble with Denmark from invading England as he intended in 1046; but Harold Hardraada inherited Magnus’ claim to the English throne, and he came to enforce it in 1066.
The reign of Edward the Confessor and the Norman Conquest
It is easy to regard the years of Edward’s rule simply as a prelude to the catastrophe of 1066, yet there are other aspects of his reign. Harrying caused by political disturbances or by incursions of the Scots or Welsh was only occasional and localized; friendly relations were usually maintained with Malcolm of Scotland, whom Earl Siward of Northumbria had supported against Macbeth in 1054; and in 1063 the victories of Harold, Earl of Wessex, and his brother Tostig ended the trouble from Wales. The normal course of administration was maintained, with efficient mints, writing office, taxation system, and courts of justice. Trade was prosperous. The church contained several good and competent leaders, and bad appointments—like those of the Normans, Ulf to Dorchester and Robert to London and Canterbury, and of Stigand to Winchester—were the exception. Scholarship was not in decline, and manuscripts were produced in great number. English illumination and other forms of art were admired abroad.
The troubles of the reign came from the excessive power concentrated in the hands of the rival houses of Leofric of Mercia and Godwine of Wessex and from resentment caused by the king’s introduction of Norman friends, though their influence has sometimes been exaggerated. A crisis arose in 1051 when Godwine defied the king’s order to punish the men of Dover, who had resisted an attempt by Eustace of Boulogne to quarter his men on them by force. The support of Earl Leofric and Earl Siward enabled Edward to secure the outlawry of Godwine and his sons; and William of Normandy paid Edward a visit during which Edward may have promised William succession to the English throne, although this Norman claim may have been mere propaganda. Godwine and his sons came back the following year with a strong force, and the magnates were not prepared to engage them in civil war but forced the king to make terms. Some unpopular Normans were driven out, including Archbishop Robert, whose archbishopric was given to Stigand; this act supplied one excuse for the papal support of William’s cause.
Harold succeeded his father Godwine as earl of Wessex in 1053; Tostig was made earl of Northumbria in 1055; and their younger brothers were also provided with earldoms. To settle the question of succession, negotiations were begun in 1054 to bring Edward, Edmund’s son (nephew of Edward the Confessor), from Hungary; but Edward died in 1057, leaving a son, Edgar Aetheling, then a child, who was passed over in 1066. In about 1064 Harold of Wessex, when visiting Normandy, swore to support William’s claim. Only Norman versions of the incident survive and the true circumstances cannot be ascertained, but William used Harold’s broken oath to help secure papal support later. In 1065 Harold acquiesced in the appointment of Morcar, brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia, to replace Tostig when the Northumbrians revolted against him, and thus Harold turned his brother into an enemy. King Edward, when dying, named Harold to succeed him, and, after overcoming Northumbrian reluctance with the help of Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, Harold was universally accepted.
Harold might have proved an effective ruler, but the forces against him were too strong. The papacy, without hearing the defense in favour of Harold’s succession, gave its blessing to an invasion of a people who had always been distinguished for their loyalty to Rome, and this papal support helped William to collect his army widely. The threat from Harold III Hardraade, who was joined by Tostig, prevented Harold from concentrating his forces in the south and took him north at a critical moment. He fought at Hastings only 24 days after the armies of Mercia and Northumbria had been put out of action by enormous losses at Fulford and only 19 days after he had defeated and killed Harold III Hardraade and Tostig at Stamford Bridge. Harold was slain at Hastings, and on Christmas Day, 1066, William of Normandy was crowned king of England. Although the Anglo-Saxon fighting force was perhaps the best in Europe and the defeat at Hastings due largely to a series of historical accidents, it is not difficult to understand the English chronicler’s view that God was angry with the English people.
The Normans (1066–1154)
William I (1066–87)
The Norman Conquest has long been argued about. The question has been whether William Iintroduced fundamental changes in England or based his rule solidly on Anglo-Saxon foundations. A particularly controversial issue has been the introduction of feudalism. On balance, the debate has favoured dramatic change while also granting that in some respects the Normans learned much from the English past. Yet William replaced his initial policy of trying to govern through Englishmen with an increasingly thoroughgoing Normanization.
Resistance and rebellion
The Conquest was not achieved at a single stroke. In 1068 Exeter rose against the Normans, and a major rising began in the north. A savage campaign in 1069–70, the so-called harrying of the north, emphasized William’s military supremacy and his brutality. A further English rising in the Fens achieved nothing. In 1075 William put down rebellion by the earls of Hereford, Norfolk, and Northumbria. The latter, the last surviving English earl, was executed for treason.
The introduction of feudalism
The Conquest resulted in the subordination of England to a Norman aristocracy. William probably distributed estates to his followers on a piecemeal basis as lands came into his hands. He granted lands directly to fewer than 180 men, making them his tenants in chief. Their estates were often well distributed, consisting of manors scattered through a number of shires. In vulnerable regions, however, compact blocks of land were formed, clustered around castles. The tenants in chief owed homage and fealty to the king and held their land in return for military service. They were under obligation to supply a certain number of knights for the royal feudal host—a number that was not necessarily related to the quantity or quality of land held. Early in the reign many tenants in chief provided knights from their own households to meet demands for service, but they soon began to grant some of their own lands to knights who would serve them just as they in turn served the king. They could not, however, use their knights for private warfare, which, in contrast to Normandy, was forbidden in England. In addition to drawing on the forces provided by feudal means, William made extensive use of mercenary troops to secure the military strength he needed. Castles, which were virtually unknown in pre-Conquest England and could only be built with royal permission, provided bases for administration and military organization. They were an essential element in the Norman settlement of England.
Government and justice
William hoped to be able to rule England in much the same way as his Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done, though in many respects the old institutions and practices had to be changed in response to the problems of ruling a conquered land. The Anglo-Saxon witan, or council, became the king’s curia regis, a meeting of the royal tenants in chief, both lay and ecclesiastical. William was said by chroniclers to have held full courts three times a year, at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, to which all the great men of the realm were summoned and at which he wore his crown. These were similar to the great courts he held in Normandy. Inevitably there were many disputes over land, and the curia regis was where justicewas done to the great tenants in chief. William himself is said to have sat one Sunday “from morn till eve” to hear a plea between William de Braose and the abbot of Fécamp.
William at first did little to change Anglo-Saxon administrative organization. The royal household was at the centre of royal government, and the system, such as it was, under Edward the Confessor had probably been quite similar to that which existed in Normandy at the same period, although the actual titles of the officers were not the same. Initially under William there also was little change in personnel. But, by the end of his reign, all important administrative officials were Norman, and their titles corresponded to those in use in Normandy. There were a steward, a butler, a chamberlain, a constable, a marshal, and a head of the royal scriptorium, or chancellor. This scriptorium was the source from which all writs (i.e., written royal commands) were issued. At the start of William’s reign the writs were in English, and by the end of it, in Latin.
In local government the Anglo-Saxon shire and hundred courts continued to function as units of administration and justice, but with important changes. Bishops and earls ceased to preside over the shire courts. Bishops now had their own ecclesiastical courts, while earls had their feudal courts. But although earls no longer presided over shire courts, they were entitled to take a third of the proceeds coming from them. The old Anglo-Saxon office of sheriff was transformed into a position resembling that of the Norman vicomte, as native sheriffs were replaced by Norman nobles. They controlled the shire and hundred courts, were responsible for collecting royal revenue, and controlled the royal castles that had been built both to subdue and protect the country.
William made the most of the financial system he had inherited. In addition to customary dues, such as revenues from justice and income from royal lands, his predecessors had been able to levy a geld, or tax, assessed on the value of land and originally intended to provide funds to buy off Danish invaders. The Confessor had abandoned this tax, but the Conqueror collected it at least four times. Profits from the ample royal estates must have been significant, along with those from royal mints and towns.
The Conqueror greatly strengthened the administration of justice in his new land. He occasionally appointed justiciars to preside over local cases and at times named commissioners to act as his deputies in the localities. There were a number of great trials during the reign. The most famous of them was the trial at Pinnenden Heath of a case between Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, and the king’s half brother, Odo, bishop of Bayeux and earl of Kent. Not only all the Normans of the shire but also many Englishmen, especially those learned in the customary law, attended. On occasion jurors were summoned to give a collective verdict under oath. Historians have debated as to whether juries were introduced as a result of the Viking conquests or were a Norman innovation, derived from Carolingian practice in France. Whichever argument is correct, it is evident that, under the Normans, juries came into more frequent use. William introduced one measure to protect his followers: he made the local community of the hundred responsible for the murder of any Norman.
The upper ranks of the clergy were Normanized and feudalized, following the pattern of lay society. Bishops received their lands and the symbols of their spiritual office from the king. They owed knight service and were under firm royal control. Sees were reorganized, and most came to be held by continental clergy. In 1070 Lanfranc replaced Stigand as archbishop of Canterbury. An ecclesiastical lawyer, teacher, and church statesman, Lanfranc, a native of Italy, had been a monk at Bec and an abbot of Saint Stephen’s at Caen. Lanfranc and William understood each other and worked together to introduce discipline and order into the English church. The see of York was subordinated to Canterbury, and efforts were made to bring the ecclesiastical affairs of Ireland and Scotland under Lanfranc’s control. Several church councils were held in England to legislate for the English church, as similar councils did in Normandy. William denied that he owed homage or fealty to the pope for his English lands, although he acknowledged papal support in winning the new realm. William and Lanfranc resisted Pope Gregory VII’s claim to papal supremacy: the king decreed that without his consent no pope was to be recognized in England, no papal letter was to be received, no church council was to legislate, and no baron or royal official was to be excommunicated. During William’s reign the controversy over the right of lay rulers to invest ecclesiastics with the symbols of their office did not affect England, in contrast to other parts of Latin Christendom.
At Christmas 1085 William had “deep speech” with his council and as a result ordered a general survey of the land to be made. Historians have debated the purpose of this “Domesday” survey, some seeing it as primarily a tax assessment, others emphasizing its importance as a basis for assignment of feudal rights and duties. Its form owed much to Anglo-Saxon precedent, but within each county section it was organized on a feudal basis. It was probably a multipurpose document with the main emphasis on resources for taxation. It was incomplete, for the far north of England, London, and Winchester were not included, while the returns for Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk were not condensed into the same form as was used for the rest of the country. Domesday is a unique record and offers rich materials for research.
One policy that caused deep resentment under William I, and even hatred under his successor William II, was the taking over of vast tracts of land for the king’s forest. In some areas whole villages were destroyed and the people driven out; elsewhere, people living in forest areas, though not necessarily removed, were subjected to a severe system of law with drastic penalties for poaching.
William the Conqueror is presented in contemporary chronicles as a ruthless tyrant who rigorously put down rebellion and devastated vast areas, especially in his pacification of the north in 1069–70. He was, however, an able administrator. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to England’s future was the linking up of England with continental affairs. If the country had been conquered again by the Danes, as seemed possible, it might have remained in a backwater of European development. In the event, England was linked, economically and culturally, to France and continental Europe. The aristocracy spoke French, while Latin was the language of the church and the administration.
The sons of William I
William II Rufus (1087–1100)
Under William I’s two sons William II Rufus and Henry I, strong, centralized government continued, and England’s link with Normandy was strengthened. Rebellion by Norman barons, led by the king’s half uncles, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, was soon put down by William II, who made promises of good government and relief from taxation and the severity of the forest laws. Odo of Bayeux was banished, and William of St. Calais, bishop of Durham, tried for treason. As an ecclesiastic he rejected the jurisdiction of the king’s court. But Lanfranc pointed out that it was not as a churchman but as lord of his temporal fiefs that he was being tried. He was finally allowed to leave the country, in return for surrender of his fiefs.
William II’s main preoccupation was to win Normandy from his elder brother Robert. After some initial skirmishing, William’s plans were furthered by Robert’s decision to go on crusade in 1096. Robert mortgaged his lands to William for 10,000 marks, which was raised in England by drastic and unpopular means. In his last years William campaigned successfully in Maine and the French Vexin so as to extend the borders of Normandy. His death was the result of an “accident” possibly engineered by his younger brother Henry: he was shot with an arrow in the New Forest. Henry, who was conveniently with the hunting party, rode posthaste to Winchester, seized the treasury, and was chosen king the next day.
Henry I (1100–35)
A good politician and administrator, Henry I was the ablest of the Conqueror’s sons. At his coronation on Aug. 5, 1100, he issued a charter intended to win the support of the nation. This propaganda document, in which Henry promised to give up many practices of the past, demonstrates how oppressive Norman government had become. Henry promised not to exploit church vacancies, as his brother had done, and guaranteed that reliefs, sums paid by feudal vassals when they took over their fathers’ estates, would be “just and legitimate.” He also promised to return to the laws of Edward the Confessor, though this cannot have been intended literally.
Following the suppression of rebellion in England, the conquest of Normandy was an important priority for Henry. By 1105 he took the offensive, and in September 1106 he won a decisive battle at Tinchebraythat gave him control of the whole of Normandy. Robert was captured and was to spend the rest of his 80 years in castle dungeons. His son, William Clito, escaped and remained until his death in 1128 a thorn in Henry’s flesh. Success in Normandy was followed by wars against Louis VI of France, but by 1120 Henry was everywhere successful in both diplomacy and war. He had arranged a marriage for his only legitimate son, William, to Matilda, daughter of Fulk of Anjou, and had received Fulk’s homage for Maine. Pope Calixtus II, his cousin, gave him full support for his control of Normandy on condition that his son William should do homage to the French king.
Relations with the church had not always been easy. Henry had inherited from William II a quarrel with the church that became part of the Europe-wide Investiture Controversy. After Lanfranc’s death William had delayed appointing a successor, presumably for the privilege of exploiting the resources of the archbishopric. After four years, during a bout of illness, he appointed Anselm of Bec, one of the great scholars of his time (1093). Anselm did homage for his temporalities, but whether or not he was ever invested with the symbols of spiritual office by the king is not clear. Papal confirmation was complicated by the fact that there were two claimants to the papal throne. Anselm refused to accept a decision made by the king’s supporters and insisted on receiving his pallium from Urban II, a reform pope in the tradition of Gregory VII, rather than from the imperial nominee, Clement III. Conflict between king and archbishop flared up again in 1097 over what William considered to be an inadequate Canterburycontingent for his Welsh war. The upshot was that Anselm went into exile until William’s death. At Romehe heard new papal decrees against lay investiture.
Anselm supported Henry’s bid for the throne and returned from exile in 1100. Almost immediately he quarreled with Henry when the king asked him to do homage and to receive his archbishopric from his hands. After various ineffective appeals to Rome, Anselm again went into exile. A compromise was finally arranged in 1107, when it was agreed that the king would surrender investiture with the symbols of spiritual office in return for an agreement that he should supervise the election of the archbishop and take homage for the temporalities before investiture with the spiritual symbols took place. It was said that the concession cost the king “a little, perhaps, of his royal dignity, but nothing of his power to enthrone anyone he pleased.”
Henry continued and extended the administrative work of his father. His frequent absences from England prompted the development of a system that could operate effectively in his absence, under the guidance of such men as Roger, bishop of Salisbury. The exchequer was developed as a department of government dealing with royal revenues, and the first record of the sheriffs’ regular accounting at the exchequer, or Pipe Roll, to survive is that of 1129–30. Justices with wide-ranging commissions were sent out into the shires to reinforce local administration and to inquire into crown pleas, royal revenues, and other matters of interest and profit for the king. Henry’s government was highly efficient, but it was also harsh and demanding.
During the last 15 years of his reign the succession was a major issue. William, Henry’s only legitimate son, was drowned in 1120, leaving Henry’s daughter Matilda, wife of the German emperor Henry V, as heir. When Henry V died in 1125, Matilda returned to England. Henry I persuaded his barons to swear an oath in her support but did not consult them over her second marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, who at 14 was 11 years her junior. Within a year Geoffrey repudiated Matilda, but during a temporary reconciliation, Matilda and Geoffrey had three children.
Henry was a skilled politician, adept at using the levers of patronage. Men such as Geoffrey de Clinton, the royal chamberlain, owed much to the favours they received from the king, and they served him well in return. There was tension between the established nobility and the “new men” raised to high office by the king, but Henry maintained control with great effect and distributed favours evenhandedly. In England his rule, particularly when seen in retrospect, was characterized by peace, order, and justice. He died, probably of a heart attack, on Dec. 1, 1135.
The period of anarchy (1135–54)
Matilda and Stephen
Henry I’s death precipitated a 20-year crisis whose immediate cause was a succession dispute. But there has been much debate among historians as to whether the problems of these years were the result of some deeper malaise.
No one was enthusiastic about accepting Matilda as queen, especially as her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, was actually at war with Henry at the time of his death. Robert, Earl of Gloucester, one of Henry’s many illegitimate sons, was an impressive candidate for the throne, as were Henry’s nephews, Theobald and Stephen of Blois. The outcome of the struggle in 1135 was unexpected: while Theobald, the elder brother, was receiving the homage of continental vassals for Normandy, Stephen took ship for England and claimed the throne. Having secured the treasury at Winchester, he was crowned on December 22.
Stephen had been quick and resolute in securing the crown. But after the first flush of victory he made concessions that, instead of winning him support, served to expose his weakness. One such concession was to King David of Scotland, who was also the Earl of Huntingdon in England. When David learned of Stephen’s succession, he crossed the border by force. He was effectively bought off by Stephen’s agreeing that David’s son Henry should receive Carlisle, Doncaster, and the honour of Huntingdon. Stephen obtained the support of Robert of Gloucester by a lavish charter. He also granted a charter to the church forbidding simony and confirmed the rights of church courts to all jurisdiction over clerics. Stephen’s lavish appointment of new earls (19 in the course of the reign) was intended in part as a way of undermining the power of the sheriffs and constituted a shift of power away from the centre. Expenditure in Stephen’s early years was heavy and achievements few.
Stephen soon alienated the church. Much power in central government had been concentrated in the hands of Roger, bishop of Salisbury, and his family. One of Roger’s nephews was bishop of Ely, and another was bishop of Lincoln. This was resented by the Beaumont family, headed by the Earl of Leicester, and their allies, who formed a powerful court faction. They planned the downfall of the bishops, and, when a council meeting was held at Oxford in June 1139, they seized on the opportunity provided by a brawl in which some of Roger’s men were involved. Rumours of treason were spread, and Stephen demanded that the bishops should make satisfaction. When they did not do so, he ordered their arrest. Thenceforth Stephen was in disfavour with the clergy; he had already forfeited the support of his brother Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, by failing to make him archbishop of Canterbury in 1137. As papal legate, Henry was to be the most influential member of the clergy in the realm.
Matilda did not land in England until 1139. She and her half brother Robert of Gloucester established themselves in the southwest; Stephen’s main strength lay in the east. In 1141 Stephen was defeated and taken prisoner at the battle of Lincoln, but Matilda alienated the Londoners and lost support. When Stephen was exchanged for Robert of Gloucester, who was captured at Winchester, Matilda’s fortunes waned. The Angevin cause, however, prospered in Normandy. Although Matilda’s son, Henry, mounted an unsuccessful invasion from Normandy in 1147, in 1153 he carried out a vigorous and effective campaign. Stephen, saddened by the death of his elder son Eustace, agreed to a compromise peace. He was to remain king, but he recognized Henry as his heir.
One chronicler said, “In this king’s time there was nothing but disturbance and wickedness and robbery.” Though this was an exaggeration, it is clear that disorder was widespread, with a great many adulterine castles built (that is, unlicensed castles). It was possible for the earls of Chester and Leicester to make a treaty without any reference to royal authority. Stephen’s government lost control of much of England, and power was fragmented and decentralized.
There has been much debate as to why men fought in the civil war. It was much more than a simple succession dispute and can be seen as a natural reaction both to the strong, centralized government of Henry I and to the weak rule of Stephen. The aim of many magnates was to recover lands and offices to which they considered they had hereditary rights: much land had changed hands under Henry I. Men such as Ranulf de Gernons, 4th Earl of Chester, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, 1st Earl of Essex, changed sides frequently, obtaining fresh grants each time. Essex wanted to recover the lands and positions his grandfather had held. Most men, however, probably did not want to demolish royal government but rather wished to control and profit from it. The institutions of government did not disappear altogether. The period of the “anarchy” strengthened feudal principles of succession to land, but such offices as those of sheriff and castellan did not become hereditary.
England in the Norman period
Despite, or perhaps in part because of, the political strains of this period, these were constructive years. The economy, for which Domesday Book is a magnificent source, was essentially agrarian, the main unit being the manor, where the lord’s land (or demesne) was worked by unfree peasants who held their land in return for performing labour services. Towns, notably London, flourished, and many received new privileges based on continental practice. The church benefited from closer connections with the Continent in many ways. One such benefit was the arrival of new religious orders: the first Cluniac house was established at Lewes in 1077, and the Cistercians came to England in 1129. A great many Augustinian houses were founded in the first part of the 12th century. Imposing buildings such as Durham Cathedral and the Tower of London give eloquent testimony to the architectural achievement of the Normans, while the illuminated Winchester Bible and Psalter, made for Henry of Blois, bear witness to the artistic excellence of the age.
The early Plantagenets
Henry II (1154–89)
Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet, the first and greatest of three Angevin kings of England, succeeded Stephen in 1154. Aged 21, he already possessed a reputation for restless energy and decisive action. He was to inherit vast lands. As heir to his mother and to Stephen he held England and Normandy; as heir to his father he held Anjou (hence Angevin), Maine, and Touraine; as heir to his brother Geoffrey he obtained Brittany; as husband of Eleanor, the divorced wife of Louis VII of France, he held Aquitaine, the major part of southwestern France. Altogether his holdings in France were far larger than those of the French king. They have become known as the Angevin empire, although Henry never in fact claimed any imperial rights or used the title of emperor. From the beginning Henry showed himself determined to assert and maintain his rights in all his lands. In England this meant reasserting the centralized power of his grandfather, Henry I. His success in these aims is the measure of his greatness.
Government of England
In the first decade of his reign Henry was largely concerned with continental affairs, though he made sure that the adulterine castles in England were destroyed. Many of the earldoms created in the anarchyof Stephen’s reign were allowed to lapse. Major change in England began in the mid-1160s. The Assize of Clarendon of 1166, and that of Northampton 10 years later, promoted public order. Juries were used to provide evidence of what crimes had been committed and to bring accusations. New forms of legal action were introduced, notably the so-called possessory assizes, which determined who had the right to immediate possession of land, not who had the best fundamental right. That could be decided by the grand assize, by means of which a jury of 12 knights would decide the case. The use of standardized forms of writ greatly simplified judicial administration. “Returnable” writs, which had to be sent back by the sheriffs to the central administration, enabled the crown to check that its instructions were obeyed. An increasing number of cases came before royal courts rather than private feudal courts. Henry I’s practice of sending out itinerant justices was extended and systematized. In 1170 a major inquiry into local administration, the Inquest of Sheriffs, was held, and many sheriffs were dismissed.
There were important changes to the military system. In 1166 the tenants in chief were commanded to disclose the number of knights enfeoffed on their lands so that Henry could take proper financial advantage of changes that had taken place since his grandfather’s day. Scutage (money payment in lieu of military service) was an important source of funds, and Henry preferred scutage to service because mercenaries were more efficient than feudal contingents. In the Assize of Arms of 1181 Henry determined the arms and equipment appropriate to every free man, based on his income from land. This measure, which could be seen as a revival of the principles of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd, was intended to provide for a local militia, which could be used against invasion, rebellion, or for peacekeeping.
Struggle with Thomas Becket
Henry attempted to restore the close relationship between church and state that had existed under the Norman kings. His first move was the appointment in 1162 of Thomas Becket as archbishop of Canterbury. Henry assumed that Becket, who had served efficiently as chancellor since 1155 and been a close companion to him, would continue to do so as archbishop. Becket, however, disappointed him. Once appointed archbishop, he became a militant defender of the church against royal encroachment and a champion of the papal ideology of ecclesiastical supremacy over the lay world. The struggle between Henry and Becket reached a crisis at the Council of Clarendon in 1164. In the Constitutions of Clarendon Henry tried to set down in writing the ancient customs of the land. The most controversial issue proved to be that of jurisdiction over “criminous clerks” (clerics who had committed crimes); the king demanded that such men should, after trial in church courts, be sent for punishment in royal courts.
Becket initially accepted the Constitutions but would not set his seal to them. Shortly thereafter, however, he suspended himself from office for the sin of yielding to the royal will in the matter. Although he failed to obtain full papal support at this stage, Alexander III ultimately came to his aid over the Constitutions. Later in 1164 Becket was charged with peculation of royal funds when chancellor. After Becket had taken flight for France, the king confiscated the revenues of his province, exiled his friends, and confiscated their revenues. In 1170 Henry had his eldest son crowned king by the archbishop of York, not Canterbury, as was traditional. Becket, in exile, appealed to Rome and excommunicated the clergy who had taken part in the ceremony. A reconciliation between Becket and Henry at the end of the same year settled none of the points at issue. When Becket returned to England, he took further measures against the clergy who had taken part in the coronation. In Normandy the enraged king, hearing the news, burst out with the fateful words that incited four of his knights to take ship for England and murder the archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral.
Almost overnight the martyred Thomas became a saint in the eyes of the people. Henry repudiatedresponsibility for the murder and reconciled himself with the church. But despite various royal promises to abolish customs injurious to the church, royal control of the church was little affected. Henceforth criminous clerks were to be tried in church courts, save for offenses against the forest laws. Disputes over ecclesiastical patronage and church lands that were held on the same terms as lay estates were, however, to come under royal jurisdiction. Finally Henry did penance at Canterbury, allowing the monks to scourge him. But with Becket out of the way, it proved possible to negotiate most of the points at issue between church and state. The martyred archbishop, however, was to prove a potent example for future prelates.
Rebellion of Henry’s sons and Eleanor of Aquitaine
Henry’s sons, urged on by their mother and by a coalition of his enemies, raised a rebellion throughout his domains in 1173. King William I the Lion of Scotland joined the rebel coalition and invaded the north of England. Lack of cooperation among the rebels, however, enabled Henry to defeat them one at a time with a mercenary army. The Scottish king was taken prisoner at Alnwick. Queen Eleanor was retired to polite imprisonment for the rest of Henry’s life. The king’s sons and the baronial rebels were treated with leniency, but many baronial castles were destroyed following the rising. A brief period of amity between Henry and Louis of France followed, and the years between 1175 and 1182 marked the zenith of Henry’s prestige and power. In 1183 the younger Henry again tried to organize opposition to his father, but he died in June of that year. Henry spent the last years of his life locked in combat with the new French king, Philip II Augustus, with whom his son Richard had entered into an alliance. Even his youngest son, John, deserted him at the end.
Richard I (1189–99)
Henry II died in 1189, an embittered old man. He was succeeded by his son Richard I, nicknamed the Lionheart. Richard, a renowned and skillful warrior, was mainly interested in the Crusade to recover Jerusalem and in the struggle to maintain his French holdings against Philip Augustus. He spent only about six months of his 10-year reign in England. During his frequent absences he left a committee in charge of the realm. The chancellor, William Longchamp, bishop of Ely, dominated the early part of the reign until forced into exile by baronial rebellion in 1191. Walter of Coutances, archbishop of Rouen, succeeded Longchamp, but the most important and able of Richard’s ministers was Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, justiciar from 1193 to 1198, and chancellor from 1199 to 1205. With the king’s mother, Eleanor, he put down a revolt by Richard’s brother John in 1193 with strong and effective measures. But when Richard returned from abroad, he forgave John and promised him the succession.
This reign saw some important innovations in taxation and military organization. Warfare was expensive, and in addition Richard was captured on his return from the Crusade by Leopold V of Austria and held for a high ransom of 150,000 marks. Various methods of raising money were tried: an aid, or scutage; a carucage, or tax on plow lands; a general tax of a fourth of revenues and chattels (this was a development of the so-called Saladin Tithe raised earlier for the Crusade); and a seizure of the wool crop of Cistercian and Gilbertine houses. The ransom, although never paid in full, caused Richard’s government to become highly unpopular. Richard also faced some unwillingness on the part of his English subjects to serve in France. A plan to raise a force of 300 knights who would serve for a whole year met with opposition led by the bishops of Lincoln and Salisbury. Richard was, however, remarkably successful in mustering the resources, financial and human, of his kingdom in support of his wars. It can also be argued that his demands on England weakened the realm unduly and that Richard left his successor a very difficult legacy.
Richard, mortally wounded at a siege in France in 1199, was succeeded by his brother John, one of the most detested of English kings. John’s reign was characterized by failure. Yet while he must bear a heavy responsibility for his misfortunes, it is only fair to recognize that he inherited the resentment that had built up against his brother and father. Also, while his reign ended in disaster, some of his financial and military measures anticipated positive developments in Edward I’s reign.
Loss of French possessions
John had nothing like the military ability or reputation of his brother. He could win a battle in a fit of energy, only to lose his advantage in a spell of indolence. After repudiating his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, John married the fiancée of Hugh IX the Brown of the Lusignan family, one of his vassals in Poitou. For this offense he was summoned to answer to Philip II, his feudal overlord for his holdings in France. When John refused to attend, his lands in France were declared forfeit. In the subsequent war he succeeded in capturing his nephew Arthur of Brittany, whom many in Anjou and elsewhere regarded as Richard I’s rightful heir. Arthur died in mysterious and suspicious circumstances. But once the great castle of Château Gaillard, Richard I’s pride and joy, had fallen in March 1204, the collapse of Normandy followed swiftly. By 1206 all that was left of the inheritance of the Norman kings was the Channel Islands. John, however, was determined to recover his losses.
Struggle with the papacy
Upon his return to England John became involved in a conflict with Pope Innocent III over the choice of an archbishop. At Hubert Walter’s death in 1205 the monks at Canterbury had secretly elected their subprior and sent him to Rome to receive the pallium from the pope. The secret got out, however, and John forced the election of one of his confidants, John de Grey, bishop of Norwich, who then was also sent to Rome. Innocent III was not a man to miss such a good opportunity to demonstrate the plenitude of papal power. He quashed both elections and engineered the election of the learned and talented cardinal Stephen Langton. John, however, refused to receive Stephen and seized the revenues of Canterbury. Since John had already quarreled with his half brother the archbishop of York, who had fled abroad, England was without either archbishop. In 1208 Innocent imposed an interdict on England, forbidding the administration of the sacraments and certain church rites. In the following year he excommunicated John. The bishops of Winchester and Norwich remained the sole support of John’s power in the church. John made the most of the opportunity to collect the revenues of the sees vacated by bishops who had gone into exile.
In theory John’s excommunication freed his vassals from their oaths of fealty to him, but there was no immediate rebellion. John was able to conduct highly successful expeditions to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and it was not until 1212 that a plot, involving Robert Fitzwalter and Eustace de Vesci, was first hatched against the king. John’s brilliant solution to the problem of multiple threats was to effect a reconciliation with the papacy. He agreed to accept Stephen Langton as archbishop, to reinstate the exiled clergy, and to compensate the church for his exactions. In addition he surrendered his kingdom to the pope, receiving it back as a fief from the pope. He now had an able ally at no great cost in terms of concessions on his part.
Revolt of the barons and Magna Carta
Ever since the loss of Normandy John had been building up a coalition of rulers in Germany and the Low Countries to assist him against the French king. His chief ally was Otto IV, king of Germany and Holy Roman emperor. Plans for a campaign in Poitou proved very unpopular in England, especially with the northern barons. In 1214 John’s allies were defeated at Bouvines, and the king’s own campaign in Poitou disintegrated. John had to withdraw and return home to face his disgruntled barons.
John’s efforts had been very costly, and measures such as the tax of a 13th in 1207 (which raised about £60,000) were highly unpopular. In addition John levied massive reliefs (inheritance duties) on some barons: Nicholas de Stuteville, for example, was charged 10,000 marks (about £6,666) to inherit his brother’s lands in 1205. The fact alone that John, unlike his predecessors on the throne, spent most of his time in England made his rule more oppressive. Resistance sprang chiefly from the northern barons who had opposed service in Poitou, but by the spring of 1215 many others had joined them in protest against John’s abuse or disregard of law and custom.
On June 15, 1215, the rebellious barons met John at Runnymede on the Thames. The king was presented with a document known as the Articles of the Barons, on the basis of which Magna Carta was drawn up. For a document hallowed in history during more than 750 years and frequently cited as a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Magna Carta is a singularly undramatic document. It is thorny with problems of feudal law and custom that are largely untranslatable into modern idiom. Still, it was remarkable in many ways, not least because it was not written in a purely baronial interest but aimed to provide protection for all freemen. It was an attempt to provide guarantees against the sort of arbitrary disregard of feudal right that the three Angevin kings had made familiar. The level of reliefs, for example, was set at £100 for a barony. Some clauses derived from concessions already offered by the king in efforts to divide opposition. The celebrated clause 39, which promised judgment by peers or by the law of the land to all freemen, had its origins in a letter sent by Innocent III to the king. The barons, however, were not attempting to dismantle royal government; in fact, many of the legal reforms of Henry II’s day were reinforced. Nor did they seek to legitimate rebellion but rather they tried to ensure that the king was beneath rather than above the law. In immediate terms Magna Carta was a failure, for it was no more than a stage in ineffective negotiations to prevent civil war. John was released by the pope from his obligations under it. The document was, however, reissued with some changes under John’s son, with papal approval, and so it became, in its 1225 version, a part of the permanent law of the land. John himself died in October 1216, with the civil war still at an inconclusive stage.
Economy and society
From about 1180 the pace of economic change quickened, with a shift to what is known as “high farming.” The direct management of estates began to replace a rentier system. There was a marked price and wage inflation. Daily wages for a knight rose from eight pence a day early in Henry II’s day to two shillings under John. Landlords who relied upon fixed rents found times difficult, but most responded by taking manors into their own hands and by profiting from direct sales of demesne produce at market. A new class of professional estate managers, or stewards, began to appear. Towns continued to prosper, and many bought privileges of self-government from Richard I and John. The weaving industry was important, and England was noted as a producer of very high quality woolen cloth.
England, notably under Henry II, participated in the cosmopolitan movement that has come to be called the “12th-century Renaissance.” Scholars frequented the court, and works on law and administration, especially the Dialogue of the Exchequer and the law book attributed to Ranulf de Glanville, show how modern ideas were being applied to the arts of government. In ecclesiastical architecture new methods of vaulting gave builders greater freedom, as may be seen, for example, in the construction of the choir at Canterbury, rebuilt after a fire in 1174 by William of Sens. In military architecture, the traditional rectangular plan was abandoned in keeps such as those at Orford and Conisborough. It was a self-confident, innovative, and assertive age.
The 13th century
The 13th century saw England develop a much clearer identity. The loss of continental possessions under King John focused the attention of the monarchy on England in a way that had not happened since 1066. Not only did the concept of the community of the realm develop—used both by the crown and its opponents—but the period was also notable in constitutional terms, seeing the beginning of Parliament.
The notion that the realm was a community and that it should be governed by representatives of that community perhaps found its first practical expression in the period following the issue of Magna Carta in which a council of regency ruled on behalf of a child king not yet able to govern in his own right. The phrase “community of the land” initially meant little more than the totality of the baronage. But the need to obtain a wider degree of consent to taxation, and perhaps also the impact of new ideas derived from Roman law, led to change. In addition the county communities exerted some pressure. Knights were being asked to play an increasingly important part in local government, and soon they made their voice heard at a national level. In the conflict that broke out between Henry III and the barons in the latter part of that king’s reign, political terms acquired some sophistication, and under Edward I the concept of representation was further developed.
Henry III (1216–72)
The years until his death in 1219 were dominated by William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke. As regent in all but name he achieved success in the civil war and, assisted by the papal legate Guala, did much to restore royal government in its aftermath. After Marshal’s death there was a struggle for political power between Hubert de Burgh, the justiciar, and Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. Despite factional disputes, by the time Henry III declared himself to be of age in 1227, the minority government had achieved much. To have retained control of royal castles was a notable achievement, while the seizure of Bedford Castle from Fawkes de Breauté, a former protégé of King John, was a spectacular triumph.
Henry came under increasing foreign dominance. His marriage in 1236 to Eleanor of Provence was followed by an influx of her Savoyard relations, while the other significant group of foreigners was headed by the king’s half brothers, the Lusignans (children of his mother, Isabella, by her second marriage). Attempts to recover the lost lands in France with expeditions in 1230 and 1242 were unsuccessful. Only in Wales did he achieve limited military success. In the 1250s plans, backed by the papacy, were made to place Henry’s second son Edmund on the Sicilian throne; by 1258 these plans had involved the crown in an impossibly heavy financial commitment of 135,000 marks. A lenient policy toward the magnates did not yield much support for the king, and after 1237 it proved impossible to negotiate the grant of direct taxes with unwilling subjects.
Henry, moreover, faced a series of political crises. A baronial revolt in 1233, led by Richard, son of William Marshal, ended in tragedy. Richard was killed in Ireland, to the king’s great grief: there were allegations that the king had been tricked into agreeing to the earl’s destruction. Further political crises in 1238 and 1244 did nothing to resolve tensions. In 1238 the king’s brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, rebelled, and leading advisers such as William of Savoy left the royal council. In 1244 Henry III faced opposition in Parliament from both lay and ecclesiastical magnates. A draft proposal suggested a complex system for adding four men to the council, who were to be “conservators of liberties” as well as overseers of royal finance. The king was able, however, to exploit the differences between his opponents, and their campaign achieved little. Henry was naive; he was, on the one hand, overly trustful and, on the other, bitter against those who betrayed his trust. There was growing discontent at a local level with the conduct of royal government.
The county communities
The society of the period should not be seen solely in terms of the feudal hierarchy. There are indications that the community of the county, dominated by local knights and the stewards of the magnates, was of growing importance in this period. Although the crown could and did rely extensively on the knights in local government and administration, the knights were resentful of any intrusion of royal officers from outside and determined to defend local rights and privileges. Incidents such as that in Lincolnshire in 1226, when the county community protested against innovations in the holding of the county court and appealed to Magna Carta, show a new political awareness at a local level. The localities resented the increased burdens placed on them by Henry III’s government, and tension between court and country was evident.
Simon de Montfort and the Barons’ War
The main crisis of the reign came in 1258 and was brought on by a cluster of causes. The Savoyard and Lusignan court factions were divided; there were reverses in Wales; the costs of the Sicilian affair were mounting; and there was perceived to be a crisis in local government. In May 1258 the king was compelled to agree to a meeting of Parliament and to the appointment of a joint committee of dissident barons and his own supporters, 12 from each side, which was to recommend measures for the reform of the kingdom. In the Provisions of Oxford, drawn up in June, a scheme was set out for the creation of a council of 15 to supervise royal government. Parliament was to be held three times a year, at which the 15 would meet with 12 barons representing “the community” (le commun in the original French). The office of justiciar was to be revived, and he, with the chancellor and treasurer, was to account annually before the council. The new justiciar was to hear complaints throughout the country against royal officials. Sheriffs were to be local men, appointed for one year. The households of the king and queen were to be reformed. The drafting of further measures took time. In October 1259 a group calling itself the Community of Bachelors, which seems to have claimed to represent the lesser vassals and knights, petitioned for the fulfillment of the promises of the magnates and king to remedy its grievances. As a result the Provisions of Westminster were duly published, comprising detailed legal measures that in many cases were in the interests of the knightly class.
The Provisions of Oxford led to two years in which the king was under tutelage; he was less even than the first among equals because he was not free to choose his own councillors. The Oxford settlement, however, began to break down in 1260. There were divisions among the king’s opponents, notably between the Earl of Gloucester and the ambitious Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, Henry’s brother-in-law. The king’s eldest son, Edward, at first backed the unpopular Lusignans, whose exile had been demanded, but then came to an agreement with Simon de Montfort before being reconciled to his father. In 1261, when a papal bull released Henry from his oath to support the Provisions of Oxford, he dismissed the baronial sheriffs, castellans, and other officials imposed on him. Simon de Montfort, by now the undisputed leader of the opposition, raised rebellion, but an agreement was reached to submit the dispute to the arbitration of Louis IX of France. The verdict of the Mise of Amiens in 1264, however, was so favourable to Henry III that Simon de Montfort could not accept it.
Civil war was inevitable. In May 1264 Simon won a resounding victory at Lewes, and a new form of government was set up. Representatives of the boroughs were summoned to Parliament for the first time early in 1265, along with knights of the shire. Simon’s motive for summoning Parliament was undoubtedly political: he needed support from many elements of society. In May 1265 the young Edward, held hostage since 1264 to ensure fulfillment of the terms of the peace of Lewes, escaped and rallied the royalist forces, notably the Welsh marcher lords who played a decisive part throughout these conflicts. In August, Simon was defeated and slain at Evesham.
Henry spent the remainder of his reign settling the problems created by the rebellion. He deprived Simon’s supporters of their lands, but “the Disinherited” fought back from redoubts in forests or fens. The garrison of Kenilworth Castle carried on a notable resistance. Terms were set in 1266 for former rebels to buy back their lands, and with the issue of the Statute of Marlborough, which renewed some of the reform measures of the Provisions of Westminster, the process of reconstruction began. By 1270 the country was sufficiently settled for Edward to be able to set off on crusade, from which he did not return until two years after his father’s death. By then the community of the realm was ready to begin working with, not against, the crown.
Edward I (1272–1307)
Edward was in many ways the ideal medieval king. He went through a difficult apprenticeship, was a good fighter, and was a man who enjoyed both war and statecraft. His crusading reputation gave him prestige, and his chivalric qualities were admired. Although he had a gift for leadership, he lacked sympathy for others and had an obstinacy that led to inflexibility.
Law and government
In the 13th century the development of law became a dominant concern, as is shown by the great treatise On the Laws and Customs of England, attributed to the royal judge Bracton but probably put together in the 1220s and ’30s under one of his predecessors on the King’s Bench. Soon after Edward’s return to England in 1274, a major inquiry into government in the localities took place that yielded the so-called Hundred Rolls, a heterogeneous group of records, and brought home the need for changes in the law. In 1275 the First Statute of Westminster was issued. A succession of other statutes followed in later years, providing a kind of supplement to the common law. Some measures protected the king’s rights; others remedied the grievances of his subjects. In the quo warranto proceedings set up under the Statute of Gloucester of 1278 the magnates were asked by what warrant they claimed rights of jurisdiction and other franchises. This created much argument, which was resolved in the Statute of Quo Warranto of 1290. By the Statute of Mortmain of 1279 it was provided that no more land was to be given to the church without royal license. The Statute of Quia Emptores of 1290 had the effect of preventing further subinfeudation of land. In the first and second statutes of Westminster, of 1275 and 1285, many deficiencies in the law were corrected, such as those concerning the relationship between lords and tenants and the way in which the system of distraint was operated. Merchants benefited from the Statute of Acton Burnell of 1283 and the Statute of Merchants of 1285, which facilitated debt collection. Problems of law and order were tackled in the Statute of Winchester of 1285.
Edward began his reign with heavy debts incurred on crusade, and his various wars also were costly. In 1275 Edward gained a secure financial basis when he negotiated a grant of export duties on wool, woolfells, and hides that brought in an average of £10,000 a year. He borrowed extensively from Italian bankers on the security of these customs revenues. The system of levying taxes on an assessment of the value of movable goods was also of great value. Successive profitable taxes were granted, mostly in Parliament. It was partly in return for one such tax, in 1290, that Edward expelled the Jews from England. Their moneylending activities had made them unpopular, and royal exploitation had so impoverished the Jews that there was no longer an advantage for Edward in keeping them in England.
The growth of Parliament
Edward fostered the concept of the community of the realm and the practice of calling representative knights of the shire and burgesses from the towns to Parliament. Representatives were needed to give consent to taxation, as well as to enhance communication between the king and his subjects. The process of petitioning the king and his council in Parliament was greatly encouraged. Historians have argued much about the nature of Edward’s Parliament, some seeing the dispensation of justice as the central element, others emphasizing the multifaceted character of an increasingly complex institution. Some see Edward as responding to the dictates of Roman law, while others interpret the development of Parliament in terms of the practical solution of financial and political problems. Historians used to refer to the 1295 assembly as the Model Parliament because it contained all the elements later associated with the word parliament, but in fact these can all be found earlier. The writs to the sheriffs asking them to call knights and burgesses did, however, reach a more or less final form in 1295. They were to be summoned “with full and sufficient authority on behalf of themselves and the community . . . to do whatever shall be ordained by common counsel.” Representatives of the lower clergy were also summoned. This Parliament was fully representative of local communities and of the whole community of the realm, but many Parliaments were attended solely by the magnates with no representatives present.
In the first half of his reign Edward was thoroughly successful in Wales. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Gwynedd, had taken advantage of the Barons’ War to try to expand his authority throughout Wales. He refused to do homage to Edward, and in 1277 the English king conducted a short and methodical campaign against him. Using a partly feudal, partly paid army, the core of which was provided by the royal household knights, and a fleet from the Cinque Ports, Edward won a quick victory and exacted from Llywelyn the Treaty of Conway. Llywelyn agreed to perform fealty and homage, to pay a large indemnity (from which he was soon excused), and to surrender certain districts of North Wales. There was considerable Welsh resentment after 1277 at the manner in which Edward imposed his jurisdiction in Wales.
David, Llywelyn’s younger brother, was responsible for a renewal of war in 1282. He was soon joined by Llywelyn, who was killed in battle late in the year. David was captured and executed as a traitor in 1283. This second Welsh war proved much longer, more costly, and more difficult for the English than the first. In the succeeding peace North Wales was organized into counties, and law was revised along English lines. Major castles, notably Flint and Rhuddlan, had been built after the first Welsh war; now Conway, Caernarvon, and Harlech were started, designed by a Savoyard expert, Master James of St. George. Merchant settlements, colonized with English craftsmen and merchants, were founded. Archbishop Pecham reorganized the Welsh church and brought it more fully under the sway of Canterbury. A brief revolt in 1287 was soon quelled, but Edward faced a major rebellion in 1294–95, after which he founded the last of his Welsh castles, Beaumaris in Anglesey.
Edward devoted much attention to Gascony, the land he held in southwestern France. He went there prior to returning to England at the start of the reign and spent the period 1286–89 there. In 1294 he had to undertake a costly defense of his French lands, when war began with Philip IV, king of France. Open hostilities lasted until 1297. In this case the French were the aggressors. Following private naval warfarebetween Gascon and Norman sailors, Philip summoned Edward (who, as Duke of Aquitaine, was his vassal) to his court and, having deceived English negotiators, decreed Gascony confiscate. Edward built up a grand alliance against the French, but the war proved costly and inconclusive.
Edward intervened in Scotland in 1291, when he claimed jurisdiction over a complex succession dispute. King Alexander III had been killed when his horse fell one stormy night in 1286. His heiress was his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway. Arrangements were made for her to marry Edward’s son Edward, but these plans were thwarted by Margaret’s death in 1290. There were 13 claimants to the Scottish throne, the two main candidates being John de Balliol and Robert de Bruce, both descendants of David, 8th Earl of Huntingdon, brother of William I the Lion. Balliol was the grandson of David’s eldest daughter, and Bruce was the son of his second daughter. A court of 104 auditors, of whom 40 were chosen by Balliol and 40 by Bruce, was set up. Balliol was designated king and performed fealty and homage to Edward.
Edward did all he could to emphasize his own claims to feudal suzerainty over Scotland, and his efforts to put these into effect provoked Scottish resistance. In 1295 the Scots, having imposed a baronial council on Balliol, made a treaty with the French. War was inevitable, and in a swift and successful campaign Edward defeated Balliol in 1296, forcing him to abdicate. The victory, however, had been too easy. Revolt against the inept officials Edward had appointed to rule in Scotland came in 1297, headed by William Wallace and Andrew Moray. Victory for Edward at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, however, did not win the war. A lengthy series of costly campaigns appeared to have brought success by 1304, and in the next year Edward set up a scheme for governing Scotland, by now termed by the English a land, not a kingdom. But in 1306 Robert de Bruce, grandson of the earlier claimant to the throne, a man who had fought on both sides in the war, seized the Scottish throne and reopened the conflict, which continued into the reign of Edward II, who succeeded his father in 1307.
It has been claimed that during his wars Edward I transformed the traditional feudal host into an efficient, paid army. In fact, feudal summonses continued throughout his reign, though only providing a proportion of the army. The paid forces of the royal household were a very important element, but it is clear that the magnates also provided substantial unpaid forces for campaigns of which they approved. The scale of infantry recruitment increased notably, enabling Edward to muster armies up to 30,000 strong. The king’s military successes were primarily due to the skill of his government in mobilizing resources, in terms of men, money, and supplies, on an unprecedented scale.
The wars in the 1290s against the Welsh, French, and Scots imposed an immense burden on England. The character of the king’s rule changed as the preoccupation with war put an end to further reform of government and law. Edward’s subjects resented the heavy taxation, large-scale recruitment, and seizures of food supplies and wool crops. Pope Boniface VIII forbade the clergy to pay taxes to the king. A political crisis ensued in 1297, which was only partly resolved by the reissue of Magna Carta and some additional concessions. Argument continued for much of the rest of the reign, while the king’s debts mounted. The Riccardi, Edward’s bankers in the first part of the reign, were effectively bankrupted in 1294, and their eventual successors, the Frescobaldi, were unable to give the king the same level of support as their predecessors.
Social, economic, and cultural change
The population expanded rapidly in the 13th century, reaching a level of about five million. Great landlords prospered with the system of high farming, but the average size of small peasant holdings fell, with no compensating rise in productivity. There has been debate about the fate of the knightly class: some historians have argued that lesser landowners suffered a decline in wealth and numbers, while others have pointed to their increased political importance as evidence of their prosperity. Although there were probably both gainers and losers, the overall number of knights in England almost certainly fell to less than 2,000. Ties between magnates and their feudal tenants slackened as the relationship became increasingly a legal rather than a personal one. Lords began to adopt new methods of recruiting their retinues, using contracts demanding service either for life or for a short term, in exchange for fees, robes, and wages. Towns continued to grow, with many new ones being founded, but the weaving industry suffered a decline, in part because of competition from rural areas and in part as a result of restrictive guild practices. In trade, England became increasingly dependent on exports of raw wool.
The advent of the friars introduced a new element to the church. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were developing rapidly, and in Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, England produced two major, if somewhat eccentric, intellectual figures. Ecclesiastical architecture flourished, showing a strong French influence: Henry III’s patronage of the new Westminster Abbey was particularly notable. Edward I’s castles in North Wales rank high among the finest examples of medieval military architecture.
The 14th century
The 14th century, despite some gains, was a bleak age. At its beginning and close were kings whose reigns ended in failure. In between, however, came the 50-year reign of the popular and successful Edward III. During the century the importance of the Commons in Parliament continued to grow. But dominant factors of the age were war and plague. The increased scale, cost, and frequency of wars from the 1290s onward imposed heavy burdens on state and society. Conflicts between England and Francecontinued intermittently throughout the century, those from 1337 onward being called the Hundred Years’ War. The Black Death struck in 1348–49; it became endemic, recurring several times in the second half of the century, and brought with it profound economic and social change.
Edward II (1307–27)
Edward II’s reign was an almost unmitigated disaster. He inherited some of his problems from his father, the most significant being a treasury deficit of some £200,000, and the Scottish war. He inherited none of his father’s strengths. He was a good horseman but did not enjoy swordplay or tournaments, preferring swimming, ditch digging, thatching, and theatricals. Although surrounded by a ruling class strongly tied to his family by blood and service, Edward rejected the company of his peers, preferring that of Piers Gaveston, son of a Gascon knight, with whom he probably had a homosexual relationship. Edward’s father had exiled Gaveston in an attempt to quash the friendship. Edward the son recalled him and conferred on him the highest honours he had to bestow: the earldom of Cornwall and marriage to his niece Margaret de Clare, sister of the Earl of Gloucester. Edward also recalled Archbishop Winchelsey and Bishop Bek of Durham, both of whom had gone into exile under Edward I. He dismissed and put on trial one of his father’s most trusted servants, the treasurer, Walter Langton.
Historians used to emphasize the constitutional struggle that took place in this reign, seeing a conflict between a baronial ideal of government conducted with the advice of the magnates and based on the great offices of state, the Chancery and the Exchequer, on the one hand, and a royal policy of reliance upon the departments of the royal household, notably the wardrobe and chamber, on the other. More recent interpretations have shifted the emphasis to personal rivalries and ambitions.
Opposition to Edward began to build as early as January 1308. At the coronation in February a new clause was added to the king’s oath that obligated him to promise that he would keep such laws “as the community of the realm shall have chosen.” In April the barons came armed to Parliament and warned the king that “homage and the oath of allegiance are stronger and bind more by reason of the crown than by reason of the person of the king.” The first phase of the reign culminated in the production of the Ordinances in 1311. They were in part directed against Gaveston—who was again to be exiled—and other royal favourites, but much of the document looked back to the grievances of Edward I’s later years, echoing concessions made by the king in 1300. Hostility was expressed to the practice of prise (compulsory purchase of foodstuffs for royal armies). Baronial consent was required for foreign war (possibly in remembrance of Edward I’s Flanders campaign of 1297). The privy seal was not to be used to interfere in justice. A long list of officials were to be chosen with the advice and consent of the barons in Parliament. All revenues were to be paid into the Exchequer. The king’s bankers, the Frescobaldi, who had also served Edward I, were to be expelled from the realm. Royal grants of land made since the appointment of the Ordainers in 1310 were annulled. It is noteworthy that the first clear statement that consent should be given in Parliament is to be found in the Ordinances. No explicit role, however, was given to the Commons, the representative element in Parliament.
The middle years of Edward’s reign were dominated by the enigmatic figure of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, the king’s cousin and chief opponent, whose surly inactivity for long periods blocked effective political initiatives. His political program never amounted to much more than enforcement of the Ordinances. He supervised the capture and execution of Gaveston in 1312 and came to dominance after the disastrous defeat of a royal army at the hands of the Scottish pikemen and bowmen at Bannockburnin 1314. At the Lincoln Parliament of 1316 he was named chief councillor, but he soon withdrew from active government.
A conciliar regime was set up with the Treaty of Leake of 1318. This was once thought to have been the work of a “middle party,” but the political alliances of this period cannot be categorized in such a manner. New royal favourites emerged, and in 1321 the peace was broken when the Welsh marcher lords moved against two of them, a father and son, both called Hugh Despenser. When Parliament met, the two were exiled, but they soon returned. In this brief civil war, which ended in 1322, Edward was victorious. He had Lancaster executed for treason after his ignominious defeat at Boroughbridge in 1322. In death Lancaster attracted a popular sympathy he had rarely received in life, with many rumours of miracles at his tomb. Edward had many of Lancaster’s followers executed in a horrific bloodbath. In the same year the Ordinances were repealed in Parliament at York, and in the Statute of York the intention of returning to the constitutional practices of the past was announced. But in specifying that the “consent of the prelates, earls, and barons, and of the community of the realm” was required for legislation, the Statute of York provided much scope for historical argument; some historians have made claims for a narrow baronial interpretation of what is meant by “community of the realm,” while others have seen the terminology as giving the representative element in Parliament a new role. A tract written in this period, the Modus tenendi parliamentum, certainly placed a new emphasis on the representatives of shire, borough, and lower clergy. In terms of practical politics, however, the Statute of York permitted the fullest resumption of royal authority.
The final period of the reign saw the Despensers restored to power. They carried out various administrative reforms, ably assisted by the treasurer, Walter Stapledon. For the first time in many years, a substantial treasury of about £60,000 was built up. At the same time, crude blackmail and blatantcorruption characterized this regime. A brief war against the French was unsuccessful. The reign ended with the invasion of Edward’s estranged queen, Isabella, assisted by Roger Mortimer, soon to be Earl of March. With the support above all of the Londoners, the government was overthrown, the Despensers executed, and the king imprisoned. Parliament was called in his name, and he was simultaneously deposed and persuaded to abdicate in favour of his son, Edward III. After two conspiracies to release him, he was almost certainly killed in Berkeley Castle.
Edward III (1327–77)
The Hundred Years’ War, to 1360
Edward III achieved personal power when he overthrew his mother’s and Mortimer’s dominance in 1330 at the age of 17. Their regime had been just as corrupt as that of the Despensers but less constructive. The young king had been sadly disappointed by an unsuccessful campaign against the Scots in 1327; in 1333 the tide turned when he achieved victory at Halidon Hill. Edward gave his support to Edward Balliol as claimant to the Scottish throne, rather than to Robert I’s son David II. But as long as the Scots had the support of the French king Philip VI, final success proved impossible, and this was one of the causes for the outbreak of the French war in 1337. Another was the long-standing friction over Gascony, chronic since 1294 and stemming ultimately from the Treaty of Paris of 1259. By establishing that the kings of England owed homage to the kings of France for Gascony the treaty had created an awkward relationship. The building of bastides (fortified towns) by each side contributed to friction, as did piracyby English and French sailors. The English resented any appeals to the French court by Gascons. English-French rivalry also extended into the Netherlands, which was dependent on English wool for industrial prosperity but some of whose states, including Flanders, were subject to French claims of suzerainty. Finally, there was the matter of the French throne itself. Edward, through his mother, was closer in blood to the last ruler of the Capetian dynasty than was the Valois Philip VI. The claim was of great propagandavalue to Edward, for it meant that he did not appear as simply a rebellious vassal of the French king. His allies could fight for him without dishonour.
The initial phase of the war was inconclusive. Edward won a naval victory at Sluys in 1340, but he lacked the resources to follow it up. Although intervention in a succession dispute in Brittany saw the English register successes, stalemate came in 1343. The first great triumph came with the invasion of Normandyin 1346. As Edward was retreating northward, he defeated the French at Crécy and then settled to the siege of Calais, which fell in 1347. The French allies, the Scots, were also defeated in 1346 at Neville’s Cross, where their king, David II, was taken prisoner. The focus of the war moved south in 1355, when the king’s son, the Black Prince, was sent to Gascony. He launched a successful raid in 1355 and another in 1356, and at Poitiers he defeated and captured the French king John, for whom a heavy ransom was charged. As at Crécy, English archery proved decisive. A major campaign in 1359–60, planned as the decisive blow, proved unsatisfactory to the English. Rheims did not open its gates to Edward as he had hoped, and a storm caused severe damage to the army and its baggage in April 1360. Negotiations led to a truce at Brétigny, and in the subsequent negotiations Edward agreed to drop his claim to the French throne. In return, English possessions in France would be held in full sovereignty. The terms, particularly those involving the exchange of territory, were not carried out in full, but neither side wished to reopen the war immediately. War was costly, and Edward III’s armies were no longer recruited by feudal means. Most were formed by contract, and all who fought received wages as well as a share of the profits of campaigning. These could be substantial if wealthy nobles were captured and ransomed.
The war, and the need to finance it, dominated domestic affairs under Edward III. The king faced a crisis in 1340–41 because he found himself disastrously indebted by 1339, even though he had received generous grants from Parliament since 1336. It was estimated that he owed £300,000. He had seized wool exports and had borrowed recklessly from Italian, English, and Flemish bankers and merchants. A grant in 1340 of a ninth of all produce failed to yield the expected financial return. In the autumn of 1340 Edward returned from abroad and charged John Stratford, archbishop of Canterbury, the man who had been in charge in his absence, with working against him. He also engaged in a widespread purge of royal ministers. Stratford whipped up opposition to the king, and in Parliament in 1341 statutes were passed that were reminiscent of the kind of restraints put on earlier and less popular kings. Officers of state and of the king’s household were to be appointed and sworn in Parliament. Commissioners were to be sworn in Parliament to audit the royal accounts. Peers were to be entitled to trial before their peers in Parliament. Breaches of the Charters were to be reported in Parliament. Charges were brought against Stratford, only to be dropped. But in 1343 Edward III was able to repudiate the statutes. The crisis had little permanent effect, though it did demonstrate the king’s dependence on Parliament, and within it on the Commons, for supply.
In the following years the country was well governed, with William Edington and John Thoresby serving the king loyally and well. Edward’s compliance toward the requests of the Commons made it relatively easy for him to obtain the grants he needed. Discontent in 1346–47 was overcome by the good news from France. Much of the legislation passed at this time was in the popular interest. In 1352 the king agreed that no one should be bound to find soldiers for the war save by common consent in Parliament, and demands for purveyance were moderated. The Statute of Provisors of 1351 set up statutory procedures against the unpopular papal practice of making appointments to church benefices in England, and the Statute of Praemunire two years later forbade appeals to Rome in patronage disputes. The crown in practice had sufficient weapons available to it to deal with these matters, but Edward was ready to accept the views of his subjects, even though he did little about them later. Much attention was given to the organization of the wool trade because it was intimately bound up with the finance of war. In 1363 the Calais staple was set up, under which all English exports of raw wool were channeled through Calais. The currency was reformed very effectively with the introduction in the 1340s of a gold coinage alongside the traditional silver pennies.
Law and order
The maintenance of law and order, a prime duty for a medieval king, had reached a point of crisis by the end of Edward I’s reign when special commissions, known as commissions of trailbaston, were set up to try to deal with the problem. Matters became worse under Edward II, from whose reign there is much evidence of gang warfare, often involving men of knightly status. Maintaining law and order was also an urgent issue in Edward III’s reign. In the early years there was conflict between the magnates, who wanted to be given full authority in the localities, and the county knights and gentry, who favoured locally appointed keepers of the peace. A possible solution, favoured by the chief justice, Geoffrey Scrope, was to extend the jurisdiction of the king’s bench into the localities. There was a major crime wave in 1346 and 1347, intensified by the activities of soldiers returning from France. The justices reacted by greatly extending the use of accusations of treason, but the Commons protested against procedures they claimed did little to promote order and much to impoverish the people. In 1352 the crown gave way, producing in the Statute of Treason a narrow definition of great treason that made it impossible to threaten common criminals with the harsh penalties which followed conviction for treason. The concern of the Commons had been that in cases of treason goods and land forfeited by those found guilty went to the crown, not to the overlord. In 1361 the position of justice of the peace was established by statute, marking another success for the Commons.
The crises of Edward’s later years
The war with France was reopened in 1369 and went badly. The king was in his dotage and, since the death of Queen Philippa in 1369, in the clutches of his unscrupulous mistress Alice Perrers. The heir to the throne, Edward the Black Prince, was ill and died in 1376. Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, the next son, had died in 1368, and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the third surviving son, was largely occupied with his claims to Castile, his inheritance through his second wife, Constance. Edmund of Langley, the fourth surviving son, was a nonentity, and the youngest, Thomas of Woodstock, was not yet of age. In 1371 Parliament demanded the dismissal of William of Wykeham, the chancellor, and the appointment of laymen to state offices. The new government, dominated by men such as William Latimer, the chamberlain, proved unpopular and ineffective. When the so-called Good Parliament met in 1376, grievances had accumulated and needed to be dealt with. As in previous crises, a committee consisting of four bishops, four earls, and four barons was set up to take responsibility for the reforms. Then, under the leadership of Peter de la Mare, who may be termed the first Speaker, the Commons impeached Latimer, Alice Perrers, and a number of ministers and officials, some of whom had profited personally from the administration of the royal finances. The Commons took the role of prosecutors before the Lords in what amounted to a new procedure.
John of Gaunt, an unpopular figure at this time, had, as a result of the king’s illness, presided uncomfortably over the Good Parliament. He ensured that the achievement of Peter de la Mare and his colleagues was ephemeral, taking charge of the government at the end of the reign. De la Mare was jailed in Nottingham. William of Wykeham was attacked for alleged peculation as chancellor, and Alice Perrers was restored to court. The Parliament of 1377 reversed all important acts of the Good Parliament. There were rumours in London that Gaunt aimed at the throne. But the Black Prince’s widow made peace between Gaunt and the Londoners, and Wykeham’s temporalities were restored. The reign ended in truce, if not peace.
Richard II (1377–99)
Richard II’s reign was fraught with crises—economic, social, political, and constitutional. He was 10 years old when his grandfather died, and the first problem the country faced was having to deal with his minority. A “continual council” was set up to “govern the king and his kingdom.” Although John of Gaunt was still the dominant figure in the royal family, neither he nor his brothers were included.
The Peasants’ Revolt (1381)
Financing the increasingly expensive and unsuccessful war with France was a major preoccupation. At the end of Edward III’s reign a new device, a poll tax of four pence a head, had been introduced. A similar but graduated tax followed in 1379, and in 1380 another set at one shilling a head was granted. It proved inequitable and impractical, and, when the government tried to speed up collection in the spring of 1381, a popular rebellion—the Peasants’ Revolt—ensued. Although the poll tax was the spark that set it off, there were also deeper causes related to changes in the economy and to political developments. The government, in particular, engendered hostility to the legal system by its policies of expanding the powers of the justices of the peace at the expense of local and manorial courts. In addition, popular poor preachers spread subversive ideas with slogans such as: “When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?” The Peasants’ Revolt began in Essex and Kent. Widespread outbreaks occurred through the southeast of England, taking the form of assaults on tax collectors, attacks on landlords and their manor houses, destruction of documentary evidence of villein status, and attacks on lawyers. Attacks on religious houses, such as that at St. Albans, were particularly severe, perhaps because they had been among the most conservative of landlords in commuting labour services.
The men of Essex and Kent moved on London to attack the king’s councillors. Admitted to the city by sympathizers, they attacked John of Gaunt’s palace of the Savoy as well as the Fleet prison. On June 14 the young king made them various promises at Mile End; on the same day they broke into the Tower and killed Sudbury, the chancellor, Hales, the treasurer, and other officials. On the next day Richard met the rebels again at Smithfield, and their main leader, Wat Tyler, presented their demands. But during the negotiations Tyler was attacked and slain by the mayor of London. The young king rode forward and reassured the rebels, asking them to follow him to Clerkenwell. This proved to be a turning point, and the rebels, their supplies exhausted, began to make their way home. Richard went back on the promises he had made, saying, “Villeins ye are and villeins ye shall remain.” In October Parliament confirmed the king’s revocation of charters but demanded amnesty save for a few special offenders.
The events of the Peasants’ Revolt may have given Richard an exalted idea of his own powers and prerogative as a result of his success at Smithfield, but for the rebels the gains of the rising amounted to no more than the abolition of the poll taxes. Improvements in the social position of the peasantry did occur, but not so much as a consequence of the revolt as of changes in the economy that would have occurred anyhow.
Religious unrest was another subversive factor under Richard II. England had been virtually free from heresy until John Wycliffe, a priest and an Oxford scholar, began his career as a religious reformer with two treatises in 1375–76. He argued that the exercise of lordship depended on grace and that, therefore, a sinful man had no right to authority. Priests and even the pope himself, Wycliffe went on to argue, might not necessarily be in a state of grace and thus would lack authority. Such doctrines appealed to anticlerical sentiments and brought Wycliffe into direct conflict with the church hierarchy, although he received protection from John of Gaunt. The beginning of the Great Schism in 1378 gave Wycliffe fresh opportunities to attack the papacy, and in a treatise of 1379 on the Eucharist he openly denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. He was ordered before a church court at Lambeth in 1378. In 1380 his views were condemned by a commission of theologians at Oxford, and he was forced to leave the university. At Lutterworth he continued to write voluminously until his death in 1384. The movement he inspired was known as Lollardy. Two of his followers translated the Bible into English, and others went out to spread Wycliffe’s doctrines, which soon became debased and popularized. The movement continued to expand despite the death of its founder and the government’s attempts to destroy it.
Political struggles and Richard’s deposition
Soon after putting down the Peasants’ Revolt, Richard began to build up a court party, partly in opposition to Gaunt. A crisis was precipitated in 1386 when the king asked Parliament for a grant to meet the French threat. Parliament responded by demanding the dismissal of the king’s favourites, but Richard insisted that he would not dismiss so much as a scullion in his kitchen at the request of Parliament. In the end he was forced by the impeachment of the chancellor, Michael de la Pole, to agree to the appointment of a reforming commission. Richard withdrew from London and went on a “gyration” of the country. He called the judges before him at Shrewsbury and asked them to pronounce the actions of Parliament illegal. An engagement at Radcot Bridge, at which Richard’s favourite, Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford, was defeated, settled the matter of ascendancy. In the Merciless Parliament of 1388 five lords accused the king’s friends of treason under an expansive definition of the crime.
Richard was chastened, but he began to recover his authority as early as the autumn of 1388 at the Cambridge Parliament. Declaring himself to be of age in 1389, Richard announced that he was taking over the government. He pardoned the Lords Appellant and ruled with some moderation until 1394, when his queen, Anne of Bohemia, died. After putting down a rebellion in Ireland, he was, for a time, almost popular. He began to implement his personal policy once more and rebuilt a royal party with the help of a group of young nobles. He made a 28-year truce with France and married the French king’s seven-year-old daughter. He built up a household of faithful servants, including the notorious Sir John Bushy, Sir William Bagot, and Sir Henry Green. He enlisted household troops and built a wide network of “king’s knights” in the counties, distributing to them his personal badge, the White Hart.
The first sign of renewed crisis emerged in January 1397, when complaints were put forward in Parliament and their author, Thomas Haxey, was adjudged a traitor. Richard’s rule, based on fear rather than consent, became increasingly tyrannical. Three of the Lords Appellant of 1388 were arrested in July and tried in Parliament. The Earl of Arundel was executed and Warwick exiled. Gloucester, whose death was reported to Parliament, had probably been murdered. The acts of the 1388 Parliament were repealed. Richard was granted the customs revenues for life, and the powers of Parliament were delegated to a committee after the assembly was dissolved. Richard also built up a power base in Cheshire.
Events leading to Richard’s downfall followed quickly. The Duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son, accused each other of treason and were banished, the former for life, the latter for 10 years. When Gaunt himself died early in 1399, Richard confiscated his estates instead of allowing his son to claim them. Richard, seemingly secure, went off to Ireland. Henry, however, landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire to claim, as he said, his father’s estates and the hereditary stewardship. The Percys, the chief lords in the north, welcomed him. Popular support was widespread, and when Richard returned from Ireland his cause was lost.
The precise course of events is hard to reconstruct, in view of subsequent alterations to the records. A Parliament was called in Richard’s name, but before it was fully assembled at the end of September, its members were presented with Richard’s alleged abdication and Henry’s claim to the throne as legitimate descendant of Henry III as well as by right of conquest. Thirty-three articles of deposition were set forth against Richard, and his abdication and deposition were duly accepted. Richard died at Pontefract Castle, either of self-starvation or by smothering. Thus ended the last attempt of a medievalking to exercise arbitrary power. Whether or not Richard had been motivated by new theories about the nature of monarchy, as some have claimed, he had failed in the practical measures necessary to sustain his power. He had tried to rule through fear and mistrust in his final years, but he had neither gained sufficient support among the magnates by means of patronage nor created a popular basis of support in the shires.
Economic crisis and cultural change
Although the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348 dominated the economy of the 14th century, a number of adversities had already occurred in the preceding decades. Severe rains in 1315 and 1316 caused famine, which led to the spread of disease. Animal epidemics in succeeding years added to the problems, as did an increasing shortage of currency in the 1330s. Economic expansion, which had been characteristic of the 13th century, had slowed to a halt. The Black Death, possibly a combination of bubonic and pneumonic plagues, carried off from one-third to one-half of the population. In some respects it took time for its effects to become detrimental to the economy, but with subsequent outbreaks, as in 1361 and 1369, the population declined further, causing a severe labour shortage. By the 1370s wages had risen dramatically and prices of foodstuffs fallen. Hired labourers, being fewer, asked for higher wages and better food, and peasant tenants, also fewer, asked for better conditions of tenure when they took up land. Some landlords responded by trying to reassert labour services where they had been commuted. The Ordinance (1349) and Statute (1351) of Labourers tried to set maximum wages at the levels of the pre-Black Death years, but strict enforcement proved impossible. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was one result of the social tension caused by the adjustments needed after the epidemic. Great landlords saw their revenues fall as a result of the Black Death, although probably by only about 10 percent, whereas for the lower orders of society real wages rose sharply by the last quarter of the 14th century because of low grain prices and high wages.
Edward III ruined the major Italian banking companies in England by failing to repay loans early in the Hundred Years’ War. This provided openings for English merchants, who were given monopolies of woolexports by the crown in return for their support. The most notable was William de la Pole of Hull, whose family rose to noble status. Heavy taxation of wool exports was one reason for the growth of the cloth industry and cloth exports in the 14th century. The wine trade from Gascony was also important. In contrast to the 13th century, no new towns were founded, but London in particular continued to prosper despite the ravages of plague.
In cultural terms, a striking change in the 14th century was the increasing use of English. Although an attempt to make the use of English mandatory in the law courts failed because lawyers claimed that they could not plead accurately in the language, the vernacular began to creep into public documents and records. Henry of Lancaster even used English when he claimed the throne in 1399. Chaucer wrote in both French and English, but his important poetry is in the latter. The early 14th century was an impressive age for manuscript illumination in England, with the so-called East Anglian school, of which the celebrated Luttrell Psalter represents a late example. In ecclesiastical architecture the development of the Perpendicular style, largely in the second half of the 14th century, was particularly notable.
Recent scholarship has done much to transform the view that the 15th century was a period dominated by a factious nobility, when constructive achievements were few. In particular, the character of the nobility has been reconceived, and the century has emerged in a more positive light. It appears that even in politics and administration much was done that anticipated the achievements of the Tudors, while in the economy the foundations for future growth and prosperity were laid.
Henry IV (1399–1413)
Henry of Lancaster gave promise of being able to develop a better rapport with his people than his predecessor, Richard II. He was a warrior of great renown who had traveled to Jerusalem and had fought in Prussia against infidels. He also had a reputation for affability and for statesmanlike self-control, and he had won his crown with the support of “the estates of the realm.” It did not matter much whether that meant Parliament or something more vague and symbolic. Henry, however, intended to rule as a true king, with the prerogatives of the crown unimpaired, whereas his Parliaments, from the first, expected him to govern with the advice and consent of his council, and to listen to Parliament regarding requests for money. Thus although Archbishop Arundel stressed in 1399 that Henry wished to be properly advised and that he intended to be governed by common advice and counsel, some argument and conflict was inevitable.
Henry’s immediate task after his accession was to put down a rebellion threatening to restore Richard. The earls of Rutland, Kent, and Huntingdon, supported by the bishop of Carlisle, conspired against the king. The rising was unexpected, but Henry won support in London and defeated the rebels near Cirencester. More significant was the revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr that broke out in 1399 and became serious in 1402. Glyn Dwr sought a French alliance and captured Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the Earl of March, Richard II’s legitimate heir. Mortimer was persuaded to join the rebellion, which now aimed to make March king. In 1403 the Welsh rebels joined the Percys of Northumberland in a powerful coalition. The younger Percy, “Hotspur,” was killed at Shrewsbury in 1403. The elder was pardoned, only to rebel once more in 1405, again in conjunction with Glyn Dwr. Henry broke the alliance with a victory at Shipton Moor. Percy was finally killed in 1408, but Glyn Dwr, driven into the mountains of North Wales, was never captured.
Henry and Parliament
Henry’s relations with his Parliaments were uneasy. The main problem, of course, was money. Henry, as Duke of Lancaster, was a wealthy man, but as king he had forfeited some of his income by repudiatingRichard II’s tactics, though he also avoided Richard’s extravagance. His needs were still great, threatened as he was by rebellion in England and war in France. A central issue was Parliament’s demand, as in 1404, that the king take back all royal land that had been granted and leased out since 1366. This was so that he might “live of his own.” The king could hardly adopt a measure that would cause much upheaval. Arguments in 1406 were so protracted that the Parliament met for 159 days, becoming the longest Parliament of the medieval period. On several occasions the Commons insisted on taxes being spent in the way that they wished, primarily on the defense of the realm.
The later Parliaments of Henry’s reign brought no new problems, but the king became less active in government as he was more and more incapacitated by illness. From 1408 to 1411 the government was dominated first by Archbishop Arundel and then by the king’s son Henry, who, with the support of the Beaufort brothers, sons of John of Gaunt by Katherine Swynford, attempted to win control over the council. There was much argument over the best political strategy to adopt in France, where civil war was raging; young Henry wanted to resume the war in France, but the king favoured peace. In 1411 the king recovered his authority, and the Prince of Wales was dismissed from the council. Uneasy relations between the prince and his father lasted until Henry IV’s death in 1413.
Henry V (1413–22)
Henry V’s brief reign is important mainly for the glorious victories in France, which visited on his infant son the enormous and not-so-glorious burden of governing both France and England. Two rebellions undermined the security of the realm in the first two years of the reign. The first was organized by Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard and former confidant of the king. Though Oldcastle was not arrested until 1417, little came of his rising. Another plot gathered around Richard, 5th Earl of Cambridge, a younger brother of the Duke of York. The aim was to place the Earl of March on the throne, but March himself gave the plot away, and the leading conspirators were tried and executed on the eve of the king’s departure for France.
The French war
Henry invaded France in 1415 with a small army of some 9,000 men. The siege of Harfleur was followed by a march toward Calais. At Agincourt the English were forced to fight because their route onward was blocked; they won an astonishing victory. Between 1417 and 1419 Henry followed up this success with the conquest of Normandy and the grant of Norman lands to English nobles and lesser men. This was a new strategy for the English to adopt, replacing the plundering raids of the past. In 1420 in the Treaty of Troyesit was agreed that Henry would marry Catherine, Charles VI’s daughter. He was to be heir to the French throne, and that throne was to descend to his heirs in perpetuity. But Charles VI’s son, the Dauphin, was not a party to the treaty, and so the war continued. Henry, still wanting money but reluctant to ask for subsidies at a time when he needed all the support he could get for the treaty, obtained forced loans. There were increasing indications of unease in England. In 1422 Henry contracted dysentery and died at the siege of Meaux in August, leaving as his heir a son less than a year old.
England was competently governed under Henry V. Problems of law and order were dealt with by reviving the use of the King’s Bench as a traveling court; central and local administration operated smoothly. Henry proved adept at persuading men to serve him energetically for limited rewards. Parliament, well-satisfied with the course of events in France, gave the king all the support he needed. War finance was efficiently managed, and although Henry died in debt, the level was a manageable one. His was a most successful reign.
Henry VI (1422–61 and 1470–71)
Henry VI was a pious and generous man, but he lacked the attributes needed for effective kingship. Above all he lacked political sense and was no judge of men. Until 1437 he was a child, under the regency of a council of nobles dominated by his uncles and his Beaufort kin. When he was declared of age, the Beauforts were the real rulers of England. In 1445, through the initiative of the Earl (later Duke) of Suffolk, he married Margaret of Anjou, who with Suffolk dominated the king. Finally, in the period from 1450 to 1461 he suffered two bouts of mental illness. During these crises Richard, 3rd Duke of York, ruled the kingdom as protector.
Domestic rivalries and the loss of France
In the first period of the reign John, Duke of Bedford, proved to be as able a commander in the French war as had his brother Henry V. But in 1429 Joan of Arc stepped forth and rallied French resistance. Bedford died in 1435, and the Congress of Arras, an effort at a general peace settlement, failed. When Philip of Burgundy deserted the English alliance and came to terms with Charles VII, the conflict became a war of attrition. By 1453 the English had lost all their overseas possessions save Calais.
Despite the factional nature of politics, there was no breakdown at home. The country was ruled by a magnate council with the increasingly reluctant financial support of Parliament. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester (cardinal from 1426), were the dominant figures. The main problem was financing the war. The bishop had great wealth, which he increased by lending to the crown, receiving repayment out of the customs. Divisions in the council became more acute after 1435, with Gloucester advocating an aggressive war policy. He was, however, discredited when his wife was accused of witchcraft in 1441.
In 1447 both Cardinal Beaufort and Gloucester died, the latter in suspicious circumstances. The Duke of Suffolk was in the ascendant; he had negotiated a peace with France in 1444 and arranged the king’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou in 1445. When war was renewed in 1446, the English position in Normandy collapsed. Becoming the scapegoat for the English failure, Suffolk was impeached in the Parliament of March 1450. As he was fleeing into exile, he was slain by English sailors from a ship called the Nicholas of the Tower. Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, succeeded him as leader of the court party.
Less than three months later Jack Cade, a man of obscure origins, led a popular rebellion in southeastern England. In contrast to the rising of 1381, this was not a peasant movement; Cade’s followers included many gentry, whose complaints were mainly about lack of government rather than economic repression. Thus the remedies they proposed were political, such as the resumption of royal estates that had been granted out, the removal of corrupt councillors, and improved methods of collecting taxes. The rebels demanded that the king accept the counsel of Henry’s rival, the Duke of York. They executed Lord Saye and Sele, the treasurer, and the sheriff of Kent, but the rising was soon put down.
The beginning of the Wars of the Roses
The so-called Wars of the Roses was the struggle between the Yorkist and Lancastrian descendants of Edward III for control of the throne and of local government. The origins of the conflict have been the subject of much debate. It can be seen as brought about as a result of Henry VI’s inadequacy and the opposition of his dynastic rival Richard, Duke of York, but local feuds between magnates added a further dimension. Because of the crown’s failure to control these disputes, they acquired national significance. Attempts have been made to link these civil conflicts to what is known as “bastard feudalism,” the system that allowed magnates to retain men in their service by granting them fees and livery and made possible the recruiting of private armies. Yet this system can be seen as promoting stability in periods of strong rule as well as undermining weak rule such as that of Henry VI. Many nobles sought good government, rather than being factious, and were only forced into war by the king’s incompetence. The outbreak of civil war in England was indirectly linked to the failure in France, for Henry VI’s government had suffered a disastrous loss of prestige and, with it, authority.
The Duke of York had a claim to the throne in two lines of descent. One was through his mother, great-granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, second surviving son of Edward III, and the other was through his father, son of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, fourth surviving son of Edward III. According to feudal principles he had a better hereditary right than anyone of the Lancastrian line. He had been sent as royal lieutenant to Ireland in 1446, but he returned from there with 4,000 men in 1450 to reassert his right to participate in the king’s council and to counter Somerset’s machinations. In 1454 York was made protector of the king, who had become insane in 1453, even though the queen and court party had tried to disguise the king’s illness. Early in 1455 Henry recovered his wits. During his spell of insanity his queen had a son, Edward, which changed the balance of politics. York was no longer the heir apparent, and the country was faced with the prospect, should the king die, of another lengthy minority.
In 1455 York gathered forces in the north, alleging that he could not safely attend a council called to meet at Leicester without the support of his troops. He met the king at St. Albans. Negotiations were unsuccessful, and in the ensuing battle York’s forces, larger than the king’s, won a decisive victory. Somerset was slain and the king captured. A Yorkist regime was set up, with York as constable and the Earl of Warwick, emerging as the strong support of the Yorkist cause, as captain of Calais. The king fell ill again in the autumn of 1455, and York was again protector for a brief period; the king, however, recovered early in 1456.
Hostilities were renewed in 1459. The Yorkists fled without fighting before a royal force at Ludford Bridge, but the Lancastrians failed to make the most of the opportunity. Demands for money, purveyances, and commissions of array increased the burdens but not the benefits of Lancastrian rule. The earls of Warwick and Salisbury, with York’s son Edward, used Calais as a base from which to invade England, landing at Sandwich in 1460. A brief battle at Northampton in July went overwhelmingly for the Yorkists, and the king was captured. At Parliament the Duke of York claimed the throne as heir to Richard II. The Commons and judges refused to consider a matter so high, leaving it to the Lords’ decision. During the fortnight of debate the Lancastrians regrouped, and when Richard met them at Wakefield, he was defeated and killed. Warwick, somewhat later, was defeated at St. Albans.
The Yorkist cause would have been lost if it had not been for Richard’s son, Edward, Earl of March, who defeated the Lancastrians first at Mortimer’s Cross and then at Towton Moor early in 1461. He was crowned king on June 28, but dated his reign from March 4, the day the London citizens and soldiers recognized his right as king.
Edward IV (1461–70 and 1471–83)
During the early years of his reign, from 1461 to 1470, Edward was chiefly concerned with putting down opposition to his rule. Lancastrian resistance in the northeast and in Wales caused problems. France and Burgundy were also of concern because Margaret of Anjou’s chief hope of recovering Lancastrian fortunes lay in French support; but Louis XI was miserly in his aid. Edward’s main internal problem lay in his relations with Warwick, who had been his chief supporter in 1461. Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, called “the Kingmaker,” was cousin to the king and related to much of the English nobility. Edward, however, refused to be dominated by him, particularly with respect to his marriage. When the crucial moment came in Warwick’s negotiations for the king to marry the French king’s sister-in-law, Edward disclosed his secret marriage in 1464 to a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville. The marriage of the king’s sister to Charles the Bold of Burgundy was a success for the Woodvilles, for Warwick was not involved in the negotiations. Warwick allied himself to Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, and ultimately, through the machinations of Louis XI, joined forces with Margaret of Anjou, deposed Edward in 1470, and brought back Henry VI. The old king, dressed in worn and unregal clothing, was from time to time exhibited to the London citizens, while Warwick conducted the government. Edward IV went into brief exile in the Netherlands. But with the help of his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold, he recovered his throne in the spring of 1471 after a rapid campaign with successes at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Henry VI was put to death in the Tower, and his son was killed in battle.
The second half of Edward’s reign, 1471–83, was a period of relative order, peace, and security. The one event reminiscent of the politics of the early reign was the trial of the Duke of Clarence, who was attainted in Parliament in 1478 and put to death, reputedly by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine. But Edward was popular. Because his personal resources from the duchy of York were considerable and because he agreed early in his reign to acts of resumption whereby former royal estates were taken back into royal hands, Edward had a large personal income and was less in need of parliamentary grants than his predecessors had been. Thus he levied few subsidies and called Parliament only six times. Among the few subsidies Edward did levy were benevolences, supposedly voluntary gifts, from his subjects primarily to defray the expenses of war. In 1475 Edward took an army to France but accepted a pension from the French king for not fighting, thereby increasing his financial independence still further. Councils were set up to govern in the Marches of Wales and in the north, where Edward’s brother Richard presided efficiently. Edward’s rule was characterized by the use of his household, its servants, and its departments, such as the chamber. He was a pragmatic ruler, whose greatest achievement was to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Where he failed was to make proper provision for the succession after his death.
Edward died in 1483, at age 40, worn out, it was said, by sexual excesses and by debauchery. He left two sons, Edward and Richard, to the protection of his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. After skirmishes with the queen’s party Richard placed both of the boys in the Tower of London, then a royal residence as well as a prison. He proceeded to eliminate those who opposed his function as protector and defender of the realm and guardian to the young Edward V. Even Lord Hastings, who had sent word to Richard of Edward IV’s death and who had warned him against the queen’s party, was accused of treachery and was executed. On the day after the date originally set for Edward V’s coronation the Lords and Commons summoned to Parliament unanimously adopted a petition requesting Richard to take over the throne. He accepted and was duly crowned king on July 6, taking the oath in English.
Richard III (1483–85)
Richard was readily accepted no doubt because of his reputed ability and because people feared the insecurity of a long minority. The tide began to turn against him in October 1483, when it began to be rumoured that he had murdered or connived at the murder of his nephews. Whether this was true or not matters less than the fact that it was thought to be true and that it obscured the king’s able government during his brief reign. Legislation against benevolences and protection for English merchants and craftsmen did little to counteract his reputation as a treacherous friend and a wicked uncle. Rebellion failed in 1483. But in the summer of 1485, when Henry Tudor, sole male claimant to Lancastrian ancestry and the throne, landed at Milford Haven, Richard’s supporters widely deserted him, and he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
England in the 15th century
Central to all social change in the 15th century was change in the economy. Although plague remained endemic in England, there was little change in the level of population. Villein labour service largely disappeared, to be replaced by copyhold tenure (tenure by copy of the record of the manorial court). The period has been considered a golden age for the English labourer, but individual prosperity varied widely. There was a well-developed land market among peasants, some of whom managed to rise above their neighbours and began to constitute a class called yeomen. Large landlords entirely abandoned direct management of their estates in favour of a leasehold system. In many cases they faced growing arrears of rent and found it difficult to maintain their income levels. Because many landholders solved the problem of labour shortage by converting their holdings to sheep pasture, much land enclosure took place. As a result a great many villages were abandoned by their inhabitants.
Though England remained a predominantly agrarian society, significant development and change occurred in the towns. London continued to grow, dominating the southeast. Elsewhere the development of the woolen industry brought major changes. Halifax and Leeds grew at the expense of York, and the West Riding at the expense of the eastern part of Yorkshire. Suffolk and the Cotswoldregion became important in the national economy. As the cloth trade grew in importance, so did the association of the Merchant Adventurers. The merchants of the Staple, who had a monopoly on the export of raw wool, did less well. Italian merchants prospered in 15th-century England, and important privileges were accorded to the German Hanseatic merchants by Edward IV.
Culturally the 15th century was a period of sterility. Monastic chronicles came to an end, and the writing of history declined. Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422) was the last of a distinguished line of St. Albans chroniclers. Although there were some chronicles written by citizens of London as well as two lives of Henry V, distinguished works of history did not come until later. Neither were there any superior works of philosophy or theology. Reginald Pecock, an arid Scholastic philosopher, wrote an English treatiseagainst the Lollards and various other works emphasizing the rational element in the Christian faith; he was judged guilty of heresy for his pains. No noteworthy poets succeeded Chaucer, though a considerable quantity of English poetry was written in this period. John Lydgate produced much verse in the Lancastrian interest. The printer William Caxton set up his press in 1476 to publish English works for the growing reading public. The first great collections of family correspondence, those of the Pastons, Stonors, and Celys, survive from this period.
The 15th century, however, was an important age in the foundation of schools and colleges. Some schools were set up as adjuncts to chantries, some by guilds, and some by collegiate churches. Henry VI founded Eton College in 1440 and King’s College, Cambridge, in 1441. Other colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were also founded in this period. The Inns of Court expanded their membership and systematized their teaching of law. Many gentlemen’s sons became members of the Inns, though not necessarily lawyers: they needed the rudiments of law to be able to defend and extend their estates. The influence of the Italian Renaissance in learning and culture was very limited before 1485, although there were some notable patrons, such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who collected books and supported scholars interested in the new learning.
Only in architecture did England show great originality. Large churches were built in English Perpendicular style, especially in regions made rich by the woolen industry. The tomb of Richard Beauchamp at Warwick and King’s College Chapel in Cambridge show the quality of English architecture and sculpture in the period.
England under the Tudors
Henry VII (1485–1509)
When Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, seized the throne on August 22, 1485, leaving the Yorkist Richard IIIdead upon the field of battle, few Englishmen would have predicted that 118 years of Tudor rule had begun. Six sovereigns had come and gone, and at least 15 major battles had been fought between rival contenders to the throne since that moment in 1399 when the divinity that “doth hedge a king” was violated and Richard II was forced to abdicate. Simple arithmetic forecast that Henry VII would last no more than a decade and that the Battle of Bosworth Field was nothing more than another of the erratic swings of the military pendulum in the struggle between the house of York and the house of Lancaster. What gave Henry Tudor victory in 1485 was not so much personal charisma as the fact that key noblemen deserted Richard III at the moment of his greatest need, that Thomas Stanley (2nd Baron Stanley) and his brother Sir William stood aside during most of the battle in order to be on the winning team, and that Louis XI of France supplied the Lancastrian forces with 1,000 mercenary troops.
The desperateness of the new monarch’s gamble was equalled only by the doubtfulness of his claim. Henry VII’s Lancastrian blood was tainted by illegitimacy twice over. He was descended on his mother’s side from the Beaufort family, the offspring of John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford, and, though their children had been legitimized by act of Parliament, they had been specifically barred from the succession. His father’s genealogy was equally suspect: Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond, was born to Catherine of Valois, widowed queen of Henry V, by her clerk of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor, and the precise marital status of their relationship has never been established. Had quality of Plantagenet blood, not military conquest, been the essential condition of monarchy, Edward, earl of Warwick, the 10-year-old nephew of Edward IV, would have sat upon the throne. Might, not soiled right, had won out on the high ground at Bosworth Field, and Henry VII claimed his title by conquest. The new king wisely sought to fortify his doubtful genealogical pretension, however, first by parliamentary acclamation and then by royal marriage. The Parliament of November 1485 did not confer regal power on the first Tudor monarch—victory in war had already done that—but it did acknowledge Henry as “our new sovereign lord.” Then, on January 18, 1486, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, thereby uniting “the white rose and the red” and launching England upon a century of “smooth-fac’d peace with smiling plenty.”
“God’s fair ordinance,” which Shakespeare and later generations so clearly observed in the events of 1485–86, was not limited to military victory, parliamentary sanction, and a fruitful marriage; the hidden hand of economic, social, and intellectual change was also on Henry’s side. The day was coming when the successful prince would be more praised than the heroic monarch and the solvent sovereign more admired than the pious one. Henry Tudor was probably no better or worse than the first Lancastrian, Henry IV; they both worked diligently at their royal craft and had to fight hard to keep their crowns, but the seventh Henry achieved what the fourth had not—a secure and permanent dynasty—because England in 1485 was moving into a period of unprecedented economic growth and social change.
Economy and society
By 1485 the kingdom had begun to recover from the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death and the agricultural depression of the late 14th century. As the 15th century came to a close, the rate of population growth began to increase and continued to rise throughout the following century. The population, which in 1400 may have dropped as low as 2.5 million, had by 1600 grown to about 4 million. More people meant more mouths to feed, more backs to cover, and more vanity to satisfy. In response, yeoman farmers, gentleman sheep growers, urban cloth manufacturers, and merchant adventurers produced a social and economic revolution. With extraordinary speed, the export of raw wool gave way to the export of woolen cloth manufactured at home, and the wool clothier or entrepreneur was soon buying fleece from sheep raisers, transporting the wool to cottagers for spinning and weaving, paying the farmer’s wife and children by the piece, and collecting the finished article for shipment to Bristol, London, and eventually Europe. By the time Henry VII seized the throne, the Merchant Adventurers, an association of London cloth exporters, were controlling the London-Antwerp market. By 1496 they were a chartered organization with a legal monopoly of the woolen cloth trade, and, largely as a consequence of their political and international importance, Henry successfully negotiated the Intercursus Magnus, a highly favourable commercial treaty between England and the Low Countries.
As landlords increased the size of their flocks to the point that ruminants outnumbered human beings 3 to 1 and as clothiers grew rich on the wool trade, inflation injected new life into the economy. Englandwas caught up in a vast European spiral of rising prices, declining real wages, and cheap money. Between 1500 and 1540, prices in England doubled, and they doubled again in the next generation. In 1450 the cost of wheat was what it had been in 1300; by 1550 it had tripled. Contemporaries blamed inflation on human greed and only slowly began to perceive that rising prices were the result of inflationary pressures brought on by the increase in population, international war, and the flood of gold and silver arriving from the New World.
Inflation and the wool trade together created an economic and social upheaval. A surfeit of land, a labour shortage, low rents, and high wages, which had prevailed throughout the early 15th century as a consequence of economic depression and reduced population, were replaced by a land shortage, a labour surplus, high rents, and declining wages. The landlord, who a century before could find neither tenants nor labourers for his land and had left his fields fallow, could now convert his meadows into sheep runs. His rents and profits soared; his need for labour declined, for one shepherd and his dog could do the work of half a dozen men who had previously tilled the same field. Slowly the medieval system of land tenure and communal farming broke down. The common land of the manor was divided up and fenced in, and the peasant farmer who held his tenure either by copy (a document recorded in the manor court) or by unwritten custom was evicted.
The total extent of enclosure and eviction is difficult to assess, but, between 1455 and 1607, in 34 counties more than 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares), or about 2.75 percent of the total, were enclosed, and some 50,000 persons were forced off the land. Statistics, however, are deceptive regarding both the emotional impact and the extent of change. The most disturbing aspect of the land revolution was not the emergence of a vagrant and unemployable labour force for whom society felt no social responsibility but an unprecedented increase in what men feared most—change. Farming techniques were transformed, the gap between rich and poor increased, the timeless quality of village life was upset, and, on all levels of society, old families were being replaced by new.
The beneficiaries of change, as always, were the most grasping, the most ruthless, and the best educated segments of the population: the landed country gentlemen and their socially inferior cousins, the merchants and lawyers. By 1500 the essential economic basis for the landed country gentleman’s future political and social ascendancy was being formed: the 15th-century knight of the shire was changing from a desperate and irresponsible land proprietor, ready to support the baronial feuding of the Wars of the Roses, into a respectable landowner desiring strong, practical government and the rule of law. The gentry did not care whether Henry VII’s royal pedigree could bear close inspection; their own lineage was not above suspicion, and they were willing to serve the prince “in parliament, in council, in commission and other offices of the commonwealth.”
It is no longer fashionable to call Henry VII a “new monarch,” and, indeed, if the first Tudor had a model for reconstructing the monarchy, it was the example of the great medieval kings. Newness, however, should not be totally denied Henry Tudor; his royal blood was very “new,” and the extraordinary efficiencyof his regime introduced a spirit into government that had rarely been present in the medieval past. It was, in fact, “newness” that governed the early policy of the reign, for the Tudor dynasty had to be secured and all those with a better or older claim to the throne liquidated. Elizabeth of York was deftly handled by marriage; the sons of Edward IV had already been removed from the list, presumably murdered by their uncle Richard III; and Richard’s nephew Edward Plantagenet, the young earl of Warwick, was promptly imprisoned. But the descendants of Edward IV’s sister and daughters remained a threat to the new government. Equally dangerous was the persistent myth that the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower of London had escaped his assassin and that the earl of Warwick had escaped his jailers.
The existence of pretenders acted as a catalyst for further baronial discontent and Yorkist aspirations, and in 1487 John de la Pole, a nephew of Edward IV by his sister Elizabeth, with the support of 2,000 mercenary troops paid for with Burgundian gold, landed in England to support the pretensions of Lambert Simnel, who passed himself off as the authentic earl of Warwick. Again Henry Tudor was triumphant in war; at the Battle of Stoke, de la Pole was killed and Simnel captured and demoted to a scullery boy in the royal kitchen. Ten years later Henry had to do it all over again, this time with a handsome Flemish lad named Perkin Warbeck, who for six years was accepted in Yorkist circles in Europe as the real Richard IV, brother of the murdered Edward V. Warbeck tried to take advantage of Cornish anger against heavy royal taxation and increased government efficiency and sought to lead a Cornish army of social malcontents against the Tudor throne. It was a measure of the new vigour and popularity of the Tudor monarchy, as well as the support of the gentry, that social revolution and further dynastic war were total failures, and Warbeck found himself in the Tower along with the earl of Warwick. In the end both men proved too dangerous to live, even in captivity, and in 1499 they were executed.
The policy of dynastic extermination did not cease with the new century. Under Henry VIII, the duke of Buckingham (who was descended from the youngest son of Edward III) was killed in 1521; the earl of Warwick’s sister, the countess of Salisbury, was beheaded in 1541 and her descendants harried out of the land; and in January 1547 the poet Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, the grandson of Buckingham, was put to death. By the end of Henry VIII’s reign, the job had been so well done that the curse of Edward III’s fecundity had been replaced by the opposite problem: the Tudor line proved to be infertile when it came to producing healthy male heirs. Henry VII sired Arthur, who died in 1502, and Henry VIII in turn produced only one legitimate son, Edward VI, who died at the age of 16, thereby ending the direct male descent.
It was not enough for Henry VII to secure his dynasty; he also had to reestablish the financial credit of his crown and reassert the authority of royal law. Medieval kings had traditionally lived off four sources of nonparliamentary income: rents from the royal estates, revenues from import and export taxes, fees from the administration of justice, and feudal moneys extracted on the basis of a vassal’s duty to his overlord. The first Tudor was no different from his Yorkist or medieval predecessors; he was simply more ruthless and successful in demanding every penny that was owed him. Henry’s first move was to confiscate all the estates of Yorkist adherents and to restore all property over which the crown had lost control since 1455 (in some cases as far back as 1377). To these essentially statutory steps he added efficiency of rent collection. In 1485 income from crown lands had totalled £29,000; by 1509 annual land revenues had risen to £42,000, and the profits from the duchy of Lancaster had jumped from £650 to £6,500. At the same time, the Tudors profited from the growing economic prosperity of the realm, and annual customs receipts rose from more than £20,000 to an average of £40,000 by the time Henry died.
The increase in customs and land revenues was applauded, for it meant fewer parliamentary subsidies and fit the medieval formula that kings should live on their own, not parliamentary, income. But the collection of revenues from feudal and prerogative sources and from the administration of justice caused great discontent and earned Henry his reputation as a miser and extortionist. Generally, Henry demanded no more than his due as the highest feudal overlord, and, a year after he became sovereign, he established a commission to look into land tenure to discover who held property by knight’s fee—that is, by obligation to perform military services. Occasionally he overstepped the bounds of feudal decency and abused his rights. In 1504, for instance, he levied a feudal aid (tax) to pay for the knighting of his son—who had been knighted 15 years before and had been dead for two. Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of fiscal feudalism, forcing through Parliament in 1536 the Statute of Uses—to prevent any landowner from escaping “relief” and wardship (feudal inheritance taxes) by settling the ownership of his lands in a trustee for the sole benefit (“use”) of himself—and establishing the Court of Wards and Liveries in 1540 to handle the profits of feudal wardship. The howl of protest was so great that in 1540 Henry VIII had to compromise, and by the Statute of Wills a subject who held his property by knight’s fee was permitted to bequeath two-thirds of his land without feudal obligation.
To fiscal feudalism Henry VII added rigorous administration of justice. As law became more effective, it also became more profitable, and the policy of levying heavy fines as punishment upon those who dared break the king’s peace proved to be a useful whip over the mighty magnate and a welcome addition to the king’s exchequer. Even war and diplomacy were sources of revenue; one of the major reasons Henry VII wanted his second son, Henry, to marry his brother’s widow was that the king was reluctant to return the dowry of 200,000 crowns that Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain had given for the marriage of their daughter Catherine of Aragon. Generally, Henry believed in a good-neighbour policy—apparent in his alliance with Spain by the marriage of Arthur and Catherine in 1501 and peace with Scotland by the marriage of his daughter Margaret to James IV in 1503—on the grounds that peace was cheap and trade profitable. In 1489, however, he was faced with the threat of the union of the duchy of Brittany with the French crown; and England, Spain, the empire, and Burgundy went to war to stop it. Nevertheless, as soon as it became clear that nothing could prevent France from absorbing the duchy, Henry negotiated the unheroic but financially rewarding Treaty of Étaples in 1492, whereby he disclaimed all historic rights to French territory (except Calais) in return for an indemnity of £159,000. By fair means or foul, when the first Tudor died, his total nonparliamentary annual income had risen at least twofold and stood in the neighbourhood of £113,000 (some estimates put it as high as £142,000). From land alone the king received £42,000, while the greatest landlord in the realm had to make do with less than £5,000; economically speaking, there were no longer any overmighty magnates.
The administration of justice
Money could buy power, but respect could only be won by law enforcement. The problem for Henry VII was not to replace an old system of government with a new one—no Tudor was consciously a revolutionary—but to make the ancient system work tolerably well. He had to tame but not destroy the nobility, develop organs of administration directly under his control, and wipe out provincialism and privilege wherever they appeared. In the task of curbing the old nobility, the king was immeasurably helped by the high aristocratic death rate during the Wars of the Roses; but where war left off, policy took over. Commissions of Array composed of local notables were appointed by the crown for each county in order to make use of the power of the aristocracy in raising troops but to prevent them from maintaining private armies (livery) with which to intimidate justice (maintenance) or threaten the throne.
Previous monarchs had sought to enforce the laws against livery and maintenance, but the first two Tudors, though they never totally abolished such evils, built up a reasonably efficient machine for enforcing the law, based on the historic premise that the king in the midst of his council was the fountain of justice. Traditionally, the royal council had heard all sorts of cases, and its members rapidly began to specialize. The Court of Chancery had for years dealt with civil offenses, and the Court of Star Chamberevolved to handle alleged corruption of justice (intimidation of witnesses and jurors, bribing of judges, etc.), the Court of Requests poor men’s suits, and the High Court of Admiralty piracy. The process by which the conciliar courts developed was largely accidental, and the Court of Star Chamber acquired its name from the star-painted ceiling of the room in which the councillors sat, not from the statute of 1487 that recognized its existence. Conciliar justice was popular because the ordinary courts where common law prevailed were slow, cumbersome, and more costly; favoured the rich and mighty; and tended to break down when asked to deal with riot, maintenance, livery, perjury, and fraud. The same search for efficiency applied to matters of finance. The traditional fiscal agency of the crown, the exchequer, was burdened with archaic procedures and restrictions, and Henry VII turned to the more intimate and flexible departments of his personal household—specifically to the treasurer of the chamber, whom he could supervise directly—as the central tax-raising, rent-collecting, and money-disbursing segment of government.
The Tudors sought to enforce law in every corner of their kingdom, and step by step the blurred medieval profile of a realm shattered by semiautonomous franchises, in which local law and custom were obeyed more than the king’s law, was transformed into the clear outline of a single state filled with loyal subjects obeying the king’s decrees. By 1500 royal government had been extended into the northern counties and Wales by the creation of the Council of the North and the Council for the Welsh Marches. The Welsh principalities had always been difficult to control, and it was not until 1536 that Henry VIII brought royal law directly into Wales and incorporated the 136 self-governing lordships into a greater England with five new shires.
If the term new monarchy was inappropriate in 1485, the same cannot be said for the year of Henry VII’s death, for when he died in 1509, after 24 years of reign, he bequeathed to his son something quite new in English history: a safe throne, a solvent government, a prosperous land, and a reasonably united kingdom. Only one vital aspect of the past remained untouched, the semi-independent Roman Catholic Church, and it was left to the second Tudor to challenge its authority and plunder its wealth.
Henry VIII (1509–47)
An 18-year-old prince inherited his father’s throne, but the son of an Ipswich butcher carried on the first Tudor’s administrative policies. While the young sovereign enjoyed his inheritance, Thomas Wolseycollected titles—archbishop of York in 1514, lord chancellor and cardinal legate in 1515, and papal legatefor life in 1524. He exercised a degree of power never before wielded by king or minister, for, as lord chancellor and cardinal legate, he united in his portly person the authority of church and state. He sought to tame both the lords temporal and the lords spiritual—administering to the nobility the “new law of the Star Chamber,” protecting the rights of the underprivileged in the poor men’s Court of Requests, and teaching the abbots and bishops that they were subjects as well as ecclesiastical princes. Long before Henry assumed full power over his subjects’ souls as well as their bodies, his servant had marked the way. The cardinal’s administration, however, was stronger on promise than on performance, and, for all his fine qualities and many talents, he exposed himself to the accusation that he prostituted policy for pecuniary gain and personal pride.
Together, the king and cardinal plunged the kingdom into international politics and war and helped to make England one of the centres of Renaissance learning and brilliance. But the sovereign and his chief servant overestimated England’s international position in the Continental struggle between Francis I of France and the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. Militarily, the kingdom was of the same magnitude as the papacy—the English king had about the same revenues and could field an army about the same size—and, as one contemporary noted, England, with its back door constantly exposed to Scotland and its economy dependent upon the Flanders wool trade, was a mere “morsel among those choppers” of Europe. Nevertheless, Wolsey’s diplomacy was based on the expectation that England could swing the balance of power either to France or to the empire and, by holding that position, could maintain the peace of Europe. The hollowness of the cardinal’s policy was revealed in 1525 when Charles disastrously defeated and captured Francis at the Battle of Pavia. Italy was overrun with the emperor’s troops, the pope became an imperial chaplain, all of Europe bowed before the conqueror, and England sank from being the fulcrum of Continental diplomacy to the level of a second-rate power just at the moment when Henry had decided to rid himself of his wife, the 42-year-old Catherine of Aragon.
The king’s “Great Matter”
It is still a subject of debate whether Henry’s decision to seek an annulment of his marriage and wed Anne Boleyn was a matter of state, of love, or of conscience; quite possibly all three operated. Catherine was fat, seven years her husband’s senior, and incapable of bearing further children. Anne was everything that the queen was not—pretty, vivacious, and fruitful. Catherine had produced only one child that lived past infancy, a girl, Princess Mary (later Mary I); it seemed ironic indeed that the first Tudor should have solved the question of the succession only to expose the kingdom to what was perceived as an even greater peril in the second generation: a female ruler. The need for a male heir was paramount, for the last queen of England, Matilda, in the 12th century, had been a disaster, and there was no reason to believe that another would be any better. Finally, there was the question of the king’s conscience. Henry had married his brother’s widow, and, though the pope had granted a dispensation, the fact of the matter remained that every male child born to Henry and Catherine had died, proof of what was clearly written in the Bible: “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless” (Leviticus 20:21).
Unfortunately, Henry’s annulment was not destined to stand or fall upon the theological issue of whether a papal dispensation could set aside such a prohibition, for Catherine was not simply the king’s wife; she was also the aunt of the emperor Charles V, the most powerful sovereign in Europe. Both Henry and his cardinal knew that the annulment would never be granted unless the emperor’s power in Italy could be overthrown by an Anglo-French military alliance and the pope rescued from imperial domination, and for three years Wolsey worked desperately to achieve this diplomatic and military end. Caught between an all-powerful emperor and a truculent English king, Pope Clement VII procrastinated and offered all sorts of doubtful solutions short of annulment, including the marriage of Princess Mary and the king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond; the legitimizing of all children begotten of Anne Boleyn; and the transfer of Catherine into a nunnery so that the king could be given permission to remarry. Wolsey’s purpose was to have the marriage annulled and the trial held in London. But in 1529, despite the arrival of Lorenzo Cardinal Campeggio to set up the machinery for a hearing, Wolsey’s plans exploded. In July the pope ordered Campeggio to move the case to Rome, where a decision against the king was a foregone conclusion, and in August Francis and the emperor made peace at the Treaty of Cambrai. Wolsey’s policies were a failure, and he was dismissed from office in October 1529. He died on November 29, just in time to escape trial for treason.
The Reformation background
Henry now began groping for new means to achieve his purpose. At first he contemplated little more than blackmail to frighten the pope into submission. But slowly, reluctantly, and not realizing the full consequences of his actions, he moved step by step to open defiance and a total break with Rome. Wolsey, in his person and his policies, had represented the past. He was the last of the great ecclesiastical statesmen who had been as much at home in the cosmopolitan world of European Christendom, with its spiritual centre in Rome, as in a provincial capital such as London. By the time of Henry’s matrimonial crisis, Christendom was dissolving. Not only were late medieval kingdoms assuming the character of independent nation-states, but the spiritual unity of Christ’s seamless cloak was also being torn apart by heresy. Henry possibly would never have won his annulment had there not existed in England men who desired a break with Rome, not because it was dynastically expedient but because they regarded the pope as the “whore of Babylon.”
The religious life of the people was especially vibrant in the early decades of the 16th century, and, although there were numerous vociferous critics of clerical standards and behaviour, the institutional church was generally in good heart. Only during the extraordinary period in the 12th and 13th centuries, when money was being poured into the creation of parishes and the building of several thousand parish churches and 19 great cathedrals, was more spent on religion than in the decades between the arrival of the Tudors and the Reformation. And now it was not just great landowners but the people in general who poured money into their churches. Perhaps one in three parish churches underwent major refurbishments in this period. Hundreds of elaborate chantry chapels and altars were erected, money invested in parish guilds doubled (for the benefit of the living in the form of pensions and doles and for the benefit of the dead in the form of masses), and the number of those seeking ordination reached a new peak. In Bedfordshire at least charitable giving was highly selective; some religious orders were much more favoured than others. There is also some evidence that the monastic life and the endowment of monasteries were slowing down, but in essence the church was successfully meeting the spiritual needs of huge numbers of people.
Precisely because of the religiosity of the people, there was a growing volume of complaint about clerical absenteeism and pluralism in general and about the unavailability of the bishops in particular. Many prelates served as the top civil servants of the crown rather than as shepherds of Christ’s flock. And as inflation began to take off, so did attempts by clerics to maximize their incomes by a rather ruthless determination to collect everything to which they were entitled—such as the “best beasts” demanded as mortuary fees from grieving and impoverished parents of dead children. Spasmodic persecution had failed to eradicate the Lollard legacy of John Wycliffe in substantial pockets of southern England, and the infiltration of Lutheran books and of printed Bibles opened the eyes of some among the learned and among those who traded with the Baltic states and the Low Countries to the possibility of alternativeways of encountering God. The powerful force of the “Word” took hold of some and made the mumbling of prayers, the billowing of incense, and the selling of indulgences to rescue souls from the due penalty of their sins seem the stuff of idolatry and not of true worship. But in 1532, when Henry VIII began to contemplate a schism from Rome, embracing Protestantism was the last thing on his mind, and very few of his subjects would have wished him to do so.
The break with Rome
With Wolsey and his papal authority gone, Henry turned to the authority of the state to obtain his annulment. The so-called Reformation Parliament that first met in November 1529 was unprecedented; it lasted seven years, enacted 137 statutes (32 of which were of vital importance), and legislated in areas that no medieval Parliament had ever dreamed of entering. “King in Parliament” became the revolutionary instrument by which the medieval church was destroyed.
The first step was to intimidate the church, and in 1531 the representatives of the clergy who were gathered in Convocation were forced under threat of praemunire (a statute prohibiting the operation of the legal and financial jurisdiction of the pope without royal consent) to grant Henry a gift of £119,000 and to acknowledge him supreme head of the church “as far as the law of Christ allows.” Then the government struck at the papacy, threatening to cut off its revenues; the Annates Statute of 1532 empowered Henry, if he saw fit, to abolish payment to Rome of the first year’s income of all newly installed bishops. The implied threat had little effect on the pope, and time was running out, for by December 1532 Anne Boleyn was pregnant, and on January 25, 1533, she was secretly married to Henry. If the king was to be saved from bigamy and if his child was to be born in holy wedlock, he had less than eight months to get rid of Catherine of Aragon. Archbishop William Warham had conveniently died in August 1532, and in March 1533 a demoralized and frightened pontiff sanctioned the installation of Thomas Cranmer as primate of the English church.
Cranmer was a friend of the annulment, but, before he could oblige his sovereign, the queen’s right of appeal from the archbishop’s court to Rome had to be destroyed; this could be done only by cutting the constitutional cords holding England to the papacy. Consequently, in April 1533 the crucial statute was enacted; the Act of Restraint of Appeals boldly decreed that “this realm of England is an empire.” A month later an obliging archbishop heard the case and adjudged the king’s marriage to be null and void. On June 1 Anne was crowned rightful queen of England, and three months and a week later, on September 7, 1533, the royal child was born. To “the great shame and confusion” of astrologers, it turned out to be Elizabeth Tudor (later Elizabeth I).
Henry was mortified; he had risked his soul and his crown for yet another girl. But Anne had proved her fertility, and it was hoped that a male heir would shortly follow. In the meantime it was necessary to complete the break with Rome and rebuild the Church of England. By the Act of Succession of March 1534, subjects were ordered to accept the king’s marriage to Anne as “undoubted, true, sincere and perfect.” A second Statute “in Restraint of Annates” severed most of the financial ties with Rome, and in November the constitutional revolution was solemnized in the Act of Supremacy, which announced that Henry Tudor was and always had been “Supreme Head of the Church of England”; not even the qualifying phrase “as far as the law of Christ allows” was retained.
The consolidation of the Reformation
The medieval tenet that church and state were separate entities with divine law standing higher than human law had been legislated out of existence; the new English church was in effect a department of the Tudor state. The destruction of the Roman Catholic Church led inevitably to the dissolution of the monasteries. As monastic religious fervour and economic resources had already begun to dry up, it was easy enough for the government to build a case that monasteries were centres of vice and corruption. In the end, however, what destroyed them was neither apathy nor abuse but the fact that they were contradictions within a national church, for religious foundations by definition were international, supranational organizations that traditionally supported papal authority.
Though the monasteries bowed to the royal supremacy, the government continued to view them with suspicion, arguing that they had obeyed only out of fear, and their destruction got under way early in 1536. In the name of fiscal reform and efficiency, foundations with endowments of under £200 a year (nearly 400 of them) were dissolved on the grounds that they were too small to do their job effectively. By late 1536 confiscation had become state policy, for the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Roman Catholic-inspired uprising in the north, which appeared to the government to have received significant support from monastic clergy, seemed to be clear evidence that all monasteries were potential nests of traitors. By 1539 the foundations, both great and small, were gone. Moreover, property constituting at least 13 percent of the land of England and Wales was nationalized and incorporated into the crown lands, thereby almost doubling the government’s normal peacetime, nonparliamentary income.
Had those estates remained in the possession of the crown, English history might have been very different, for the kings of England would have been able to rule without calling upon Parliament, and the constitutional authority that evolved out of the crown’s fiscal dependence on Parliament would never have developed. For better or for worse, Henry and his descendants had to sell the profits of the Reformation, and by 1603 three-fourths of the monastic loot had passed into the hands of the landed gentry. The legend of a “golden shower” is false; monastic property was never given away at bargain prices, nor was it consciously presented to the kingdom in order to win the support of the ruling elite. Instead, most—though not all—of the land was sold at its fair market value to pay for Henry’s wars and foreign policy. The effect, however, was crucial: the most powerful elements within Tudor society now had a vested interest in protecting their property against papal Catholicism.
The marriage to Anne, the break with Rome, and even the destruction of the monasteries went through with surprisingly little opposition. It had been foreseen that the royal supremacy might have to be enacted in blood, and the Act of Supremacy (March 1534) and the Act of Treason (December 1534) were designed to root out and liquidate the dissent. The former was a loyalty test requiring subjects to take an oath swearing to accept not only the matrimonial results of the break with Rome but also the principles on which it stood; the latter extended the meaning of treason to include all those who did “maliciously wish, will or desire, by words or writing or by craft imagine” the king’s death or slandered his marriage. Sir Thomas More (who had succeeded Wolsey as lord chancellor), Bishop John Fisher (who almost alone among the episcopate had defended Catherine during her trial), and a handful of monks suffered death for their refusal to accept the concept of a national church. Even the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536–37 was a short-lived eruption. The uprisings in Lincolnshire in October and in Yorkshire during the winter were without doubt religiously motivated, but they were also as much feudal and social rebellions as revolts in support of Rome. Peasants, landed country gentlemen, and barons with traditional values united in defense of the monasteries and the old religion, and for a moment the rebels seemed on the verge of toppling the Tudor state. The nobility were angered that they had been excluded from the king’s government by men of inferior social status, and they resented the encroachment of bureaucracy into the northern shires. The gentry were concerned by rising taxes and the peasants by threatened enclosure. But the three elements had little in common outside religion, and the uprisings fell apart from within. The rebels were soon crushed and their leaders—including Robert Aske, a charismatic Yorkshire country attorney—were brutally executed. The Reformation came to England piecemeal, which goes far to explain the government’s success. Had the drift toward Protestantism, the royal supremacy, and the destruction of the monasteries come as a single religious revolution, it would have produced a violent reaction. As it was, the Roman Catholic opposition could always argue that each step along the way to Reformation would be the last.
The expansion of the English state
The decade of Reformation led to a transformation in the operations of Tudor government. Not only were new revenue courts created to handle all the wealth of the monasteries, but problems of dynastic and national security required a much more hands-on royal control of provincial affairs. In and through the English Parliament, Henry incorporated the principality of Wales and the marcher lordships (previously independent of the crown’s direct control) into the English legal and administrative system. In the process, he not only shired the whole of Wales, granted seats in the English Parliament to the Welsh shires and boroughs, and extended the jurisdiction of the common-law courts and judges to Wales, but he also insisted that legal processes be conducted in English. The palatinates of the north were similarly incorporated, and all those grants by which royal justice was franchised out to private individuals and groups were revoked. For the first time the king’s writ and the king’s justice were ubiquitous in England.
In 1541 the Irish Parliament, which represented only the area around Dublin known as the Pale, passed an act creating the Kingdom of Ireland and declared it a perpetual appendage of the English crown. Now, for the first time in 300 years, the king set out to make good his claim to jurisdiction over the whole island. English viceroys sought to impose English law, English inheritance customs, English social norms, and the English religious settlement upon all the people there. In an attempt to achieve this in a peaceful and piecemeal way, the Anglo-Irish lords and the heads of Gaelic clans were invited to surrender their lands and titles to the crown on the promise of their regrant on favourable terms. Thus began a century of wheedling and cajoling, of rebellion and confiscation, of accommodation and plantation, that was to be a constant drain on the English Exchequer and a constant source of tragedy for the native people of Ireland.
Henry VIII did not seek to incorporate Scotland into his imperium. Though he tried to keep his nephew James V, then king of Scotland, “on-side” during his feud with Rome and never forgot that on 23 previous occasions Scottish kings had sworn feudal obeisance to kings of England, Henry never laid claim to the Scottish throne.
Henry’s last years
Henry was so securely seated upon his throne that the French ambassador announced that he was more an idol to be worshipped than a king to be obeyed. The king successfully survived four more matrimonial experiments, the enmity of every major power in Europe, and an international war. On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn’s career was terminated by the executioner’s ax. She had failed in her promise to produce further children to secure the succession. Her enemies poisoned the king’s mind against her with accusations of multiple adulteries. The king’s love turned to hatred, but what sealed the queen’s fate was probably the death of her rival, Catherine of Aragon, on January 8, 1536. From that moment it was clear that, should Henry again marry, whoever was his wife, the children she might bear would be legitimate in the eyes of Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. How much policy, how much revulsion for Anne, and how much attraction for Jane Seymour played in the final tragedy is beyond analysis, but 11 days after Anne’s execution Henry married Jane. Sixteen months later the future Edward VI was born. Jane died as a consequence, but Henry finally had what it had taken a revolution to achieve—a legitimate male heir.
Henry married thrice more, once for reasons of diplomacy, once for love, and once for peace and quiet. Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, was the product of Reformation international politics. For a time in 1539 it looked as if Charles V and Francis would come to terms and unite against the schismatic king of England, and the only allies Henry possessed were the Lutheran princes of Germany. In something close to panic he was stampeded into marriage with Anne of Cleves. But the following year, the moment the diplomatic scene changed, he dropped both his wife and the man who had engineered the marriage, his vicar-general in matters spiritual, Thomas Cromwell. Anne was divorced July 12, Cromwell was executed July 28, and Henry married Catherine Howard the same day. The second Catherine did not do as well as her cousin, the first Anne; she lasted only 18 months. Catherine proved to be neither a virgin before her wedding nor a particularly faithful damsel after her marriage. With the execution of his fifth wife, Henry turned into a sick old man, and he took as his last spouse Catherine Parr, who was as much a nursemaid as a wife. During those final years the king’s interests turned to international affairs. Henry’s last wars (1543–46) were fought not to defend his church against resurgent European Catholicism but to renew much older policies of military conquest in France and Scotland. Though he enlarged the English Pale at Calais by seizing the small French port of Boulogne and though his armies crushed the Scots at the Battles of Solway Moss (1542) and Pinkie (1547) and ravaged much of Lowland Scotland during the “Rough Wooing,” the wars had no lasting diplomatic or international effects except to assure that the monastic lands would pass into the hands of the gentry.
By the time Henry died (January 28, 1547), medievalism had nearly vanished. The crown stood at the pinnacle of its power, able to demand and receive a degree of obedience from both great and small that no medieval monarch had been able to achieve. The measure of that authority was threefold: (1) the extent to which Henry had been able to thrust a very unpopular annulment and supremacy legislation down the throat of Parliament, (2) his success in raising unprecedented sums of money through taxation, and (3) his ability to establish a new church on the ashes of the old. It is difficult to say whether these feats were the work of the king or his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The will was probably Henry’s and the parliamentary means his minister’s, but, whoever was responsible, by 1547 England had come a long way on the road of Reformation. The crown had assumed the authority of the papacy without as yet fundamentally changing the old creed, but the ancient structure was severely shaken. Throughout England men were arguing that because the pontiff had been proved false, the entire Roman Catholic creed was suspect, and the cry went up to “get rid of the poison with the author.” It was not long before every aspect of Roman Catholicism was under attack—the miracle of the mass whereby the bread and wine are transformed into the glorified body and blood of Christ (see transubstantiation), the doctrine of purgatory, the efficacy of saints and images, the concept of an ordained priesthood with the power to mediate grace through the sacraments, the discipline of priestly celibacy, and so on. The time had come for Parliament and the supreme head to decide what constituted the “true” faith for Englishmen.
Henry never worked out a consistent religious policy: the Ten Articles of 1536 and the Bishop’s Book of the following year tended to be somewhat Lutheran in tone; the Six Articles of 1539, or the Act for Abolishing Diversity of Opinion, and the King’s Book of 1543 were mildly Roman Catholic. Whatever the religious colouring, Henry’s ecclesiastical via media was based on obedience to an authoritarian old king and on subjects who were expected to live “soberly, justly and devoutly.” Unfortunately for the religious, social, and political peace of the kingdom, both these conditions disappeared the moment Henry died and a nine-year-old boy sat upon the throne.
Edward VI (1547–53)
Henry was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, but real power passed to his brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, who became duke of Somerset and lord protector shortly after the new reign began. Somerset ruled in loco parentis; the divinity of the crown resided in the boy king, but authority was exercised by an uncle who proved himself to be more merciful than tactful and more idealistic than practical. Sweet reason and tolerance were substituted for the old king’s brutal laws. The treason and heresy acts were repealed or modified, and the result came close to destroying the Tudor state. The moment idle tongues could speak with impunity, the kingdom broke into a chorus of religious and social discord.
To stem religious dissent, the lord protector introduced The Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and an act of uniformity to enforce it. Written primarily by Thomas Cranmer, the first prayer book of Edward VI was a literary masterpiece but a political flop, for it failed in its purpose. It sought to bring into a single Protestant fold all varieties of middle-of-the-road religious beliefs by deliberately obscuring the central issue of the exact nature of the mass—whether it was a miraculous sacrament or a commemorative service. The Book of Common Prayer succeeded only in antagonizing Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.
Somerset is best remembered for these religious reforms, but their effectiveness was much blunted by their association with greed. Henry VIII had plundered and dissolved the monasteries and had mounted a half-successful campaign to accuse the monastic communities of corruption, licentiousness, and putting obedience to a foreign power above their obedience to him. Somerset extended the state’s plunder to the parish churches and to the gold and silver piously and generously given by thousands of layfolk for the adornment of the parish churches. Their descendants watched the desecration with sullen anger. The rhetoric of cleansing parish churches of idolatrous and sacrilegious images sounded hollow as wagonloads of gold and silver objects headed toward the smelter’s shop in the lord protector’s backyard.
All this in turn was linked to what has been called Somerset’s idée fixe, the permanent solution to the problem of the Anglo-Scottish frontier. Every time Henry VIII had tried to assert his claims to French territories, kings of Scotland had taken the opportunity to invade England. On each occasion—and especially in 1513 and 1542—the Scottish armies had been humiliated and a high proportion of the nobility killed or captured (James IV had been killed at the Battle of Flodden, and, when James V heard of the massacre of his nobility and men at Solway Moss, “he turned his face to the wall and died”). In 1543 the captured nobles agreed to a marriage treaty that was intended to see the marriage of Henry’s son and heir, Edward VI, to the infant Mary (Mary, Queen of Scots), with the aim of uniting the thrones of England and Scotland. But the Scots broke their promise and shipped Mary off to France with the intention of marrying her to the heir of the French throne. Foreseeing the permanent annexation of Scotland to France in the same way that the Netherlands had been annexed to Spain, Somerset determined to conquer the Scottish Lowlands and to establish permanent castles and strongholds as a buffer between the kingdoms. It cost him most of the country’s remaining treasure and much of his popularity, and the whole policy proved a failure.
Somerset was no more successful in solving the economic and social difficulties of the reign. Rising prices, debasement of the currency, and the cost of war had produced an inflationary crisis in which prices doubled between 1547 and 1549. A false prosperity ensued in which the wool trade boomed, but so also did enclosures with all their explosive potential. The result was social revolution. Whether Somerset deserved his title of “the good duke” is a matter of opinion. Certainly, the peasants thought that he favoured the element in the House of Commons that was anxious to tax sheep raisers and to curb enclosures and that section of the clergy that was lashing out at economic inequality. In the summer of 1549, the peasantry in Cornwall and Devonshire revolted against the Prayer Book in the name of the good old religious days under Henry VIII, and, almost simultaneously, the humble folk in Norfolk rose up against the economic and social injustices of the century. At the same time that domestic rebellion was stirring, the protector had to face a political and international crisis, and he proved himself to be neither a farsighted statesman nor a shrewd politician. He embroiled the country in a war with Scotland that soon involved France and ended in an inconclusive defeat, and he earned the enmity and disrespect of the members of his own council. In the eyes of the ruling elite, Somerset was responsible for governmental ineptitude and social and religious revolution. The result was inevitable: a palace revolution ensued in October 1549, in which he was arrested and deprived of office, and two and a half years later he was executed on trumped-up charges of treason.
The protector’s successor and the man largely responsible for his fall was John Dudley, earl of Warwick, who became duke of Northumberland. The duke was a man of action who represented most of the acquisitive aspects of the landed elements in society and who allied himself with the extreme section of the Protestant reformers. Under Northumberland, England pulled out of Scotland and in 1550 returned Boulogne to France; social order was ruthlessly reestablished in the countryside, the more conservativeof the Henrician bishops were imprisoned, the wealth of the parish churches was systematically looted, and uncompromising Protestantism was officially sanctioned. The Ordinal of 1550 transformed the divinely ordained priest into a preacher and teacher, The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI (1552) was avowedly Protestant, altars were turned into tables, clerical vestments gave way to plain surplices, and religious orthodoxy was enforced by a new and more stringent Act of Uniformity.
How long a kingdom still attached to the outward trappings of Roman Catholicism would have tolerated doctrinal radicalism and the plundering of chantry lands and episcopal revenues under Somerset and Northumberland is difficult to say, but in 1553 the ground upon which Northumberland had built his power crumbled: Edward was dying of consumption. To save the kingdom from Roman Catholicism and himself from Roman Catholic Mary, who was Edward’s successor under the terms of a statute of Henry VIII as well as that king’s will, Northumberland—with the support, perhaps even the encouragement, of the dying king—tried his hand at kingmaking. Together they devised a new order of succession in which Mary and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate and the crown passed to Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister (Mary, duchess of Suffolk) and, incidentally, Northumberland’s daughter-in-law. The gamble failed, for when Edward died on July 6, 1553, the kingdom rallied to the daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Whatever their religious inclinations, Englishmen preferred a Tudor on the throne. In nine days the interlude was over, and Northumberland and his daughter-in-law were in the Tower of London.
Mary I (1553–58)
Roman Catholicism was not a lost cause when Mary came to the throne. If she had lived as long as her sister Elizabeth was to live (the womb cancer from which Mary died in 1558 not only brought her Catholic restoration to an end but rendered her childless and heirless), England would probably have been an irrevocably Catholic country. Mary was indeed determined to restore Catholicism, but she was also determined to act in accordance with the law. She worked with and through successive Parliaments to reverse all the statutes that excluded papal jurisdiction from England and to revoke her half-brother’s doctrinal and liturgical reforms; however, she persuaded Rome to allow her to confirm the dissolution of the monasteries and the secularization of church properties. New monasteries were to be created, but the vast wealth of the dissolved ones remained in lay hands. She also gave the married Protestant clergy a straight choice: to remain with their wives and surrender their livings or to surrender their wives and resume their priestly ministry. Her resolute Catholicism was laced with realism. With her principal adviser, Reginald Cardinal Pole, she planned for a long-term improvement in the education and training of the clergy and the sumptuous refurbishment of parish churches. She took her inspiration from the Erasmian humanist reforms long championed by Pole in his Italian exile. But this liberal Catholicism was in the process of being repudiated by the Council of Trent, with its uncompromising policies. Pole was recalled to Rome by a hard-line pope and accused of heresy for his previous attempts to achieve an accommodation with Protestantism. Mary’s plans were torpedoed as much by the internal struggle for control of the Roman church as by the strength of Protestant opposition in England. Most potential leaders of a resistance movement had been encouraged by Mary to emigrate and had done so, but there were scores of underground Protestant cells during her reign. In thousands of parish churches, the restored liturgy and worship were welcomed.
Mary’s decision to marry Prince Philip of Spain (later Philip II), her Habsburg cousin and the son of Charles V, the man who had defended her mother’s marital rights, proved to be unwise. Given her age—she was 32 when she came to the throne—a quick marriage was essential to childbearing, but this one proved to be a failure. Her marriage was without love or children, and, by associating Roman Catholicism in the popular mind with Spanish arrogance, it triggered a rebellion that almost overthrew the Tudor throne. In January 1554, under the leadership of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, the peasants of Kent rose up against the queen’s Roman Catholic and Spanish policies, and 3,000 men marched on London. The rebellion was crushed, but it revealed to Mary and her chief minister, Cardinal Pole, that the kingdom was filled with disloyal hearts who placed Protestantism and nationalism higher than their obedience to the throne.
The tragedy of Mary’s reign was the belief not only that the old church of her mother’s day could be restored but also that it could be best served by fire and blood. At least 282 men and women were martyred in the Smithfield Fires during the last three years of her reign; compared with events on the Continent, the numbers were not large, but the emotional impact was great. Among the first half-dozen martyrs were the Protestant leaders Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and John Hooper, who were burned to strike terror into the hearts of lesser men. Their deaths, however, had the opposite effect; their bravery encouraged others to withstand the flames, and the Smithfield Fires continued to burn because nobody could think of what to do with heretics except put them to death. The law required it, the prisons were overflowing, and the martyrs themselves offered the government no way out except to enforce the grisly laws.
Mary’s reign was a study in failure. Her husband, who was 10 years her junior, remained in England as short a time as possible; the war between France and the Habsburg empire, into which her Spanish marriage had dragged the kingdom, was a disaster and resulted in the loss of England’s last Continental outpost, Calais; her subjects came to call her “Bloody Mary” and greeted the news of her death and the succession of her sister, Elizabeth, on November 17, 1558, with ringing bells and bonfires.
Elizabeth I (1558–1603)
No one in 1558, any more than in 1485, would have predicted that—despite the social discord, political floundering, and international humiliation of the past decade—the kingdom again stood on the threshold of an extraordinary reign. To make matters worse, the new monarch was the wrong sex. Englishmen knew that it was unholy and unnatural that “a woman should reign and have empire above men.” At age 25, however, Elizabeth I was better prepared than most women to have empire over men. She had survived the palace revolutions of her brother’s reign and the Roman Catholicism of her sister’s; she was the product of a fine Renaissance education, and she had learned the need for strong secularleadership devoid of religious bigotry. Moreover, she possessed her father’s magnetism without his egotism or ruthlessness. She was also her mother’s daughter, and the offspring of Anne Boleyn had no choice but to reestablish the royal supremacy and once again sever the ties with Rome.
Elizabeth’s religious settlement was constructed on the doctrine of adiaphorism, the belief that, except for a few fundamentals, there exists in religion a wide area of “things indifferent” that could be decided by the government on the basis of expediency. Conservative opposition was blunted by entitling the queen “supreme governor,” not “head,” of the church and by combining the words of the 1552 prayer book with the more conservative liturgical actions of the 1549 prayer book. At the same time, many of the old papal trappings of the church were retained. Protestant radicals went along with this compromise in the expectation that the principle of “things indifferent” meant that Elizabeth would, when the political dust had settled, rid her church of the “livery of Antichrist” and discard its “papal rags.” In this they were badly mistaken, for the queen was determined to keep her religious settlement exactly as it had been negotiated in 1559. As it turned out, Roman Catholics proved to be better losers than Protestants: of the 900 parish clergy, only 189 refused to accept Elizabeth as supreme governor, but the Protestant radicals—the future Puritans—were soon at loggerheads with their new sovereign.
The Tudor ideal of government
The religious settlement was part of a larger social arrangement that was authoritarian to its core. Elizabeth was determined to be queen in fact as well as in name. She tamed the House of Commons with tact combined with firmness, and she carried on a love affair with her kingdom in which womanhood, instead of being a disadvantage, became her greatest asset. The men she appointed to help her run and stage-manage the government were politiques like herself: William Cecil, Baron Burghley, her principal secretary and in 1572 her lord treasurer; Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury; and a small group of other moderate and secular men.
In setting her house in order, the queen followed the hierarchical assumptions of her day. All creation was presumed to be a great chain of being, running from the tiniest insect to the Godhead itself, and the universe was seen as an organic whole in which each part played a divinely prescribed role. In politics every element was expected to obey “one head, one governor, one law” in exactly the same way as all parts of the human body obeyed the brain. The crown was divine and gave leadership, but it did not exist alone, nor could it claim a monopoly of divinity, for all parts of the body politic had been created by God. The organ that spoke for the entire kingdom was not the king alone but “king in Parliament,” and, when Elizabeth sat in the midst of her Lords and Commons, it was said that “every Englishman is intended to be there present from the prince to the lowest person in England.” The Tudors needed no standing army in “the French fashion” because God’s will and the monarch’s decrees were enshrined in acts of Parliament, and this was society’s greatest defense against rebellion. The controlling mind within this mystical union of crown and Parliament belonged to the queen. The Privy Council, acting as the spokesman of royalty, planned and initiated all legislation, and Parliament was expected to turn that legislation into law. Inside and outside Parliament the goal of Tudor government was benevolentpaternalism in which the strong hand of authoritarianism was masked by the careful shaping of public opinion, the artistry of pomp and ceremony, and the deliberate effort to tie the ruling elite to the crown by catering to the financial and social aspirations of the landed country gentleman. Every aspect of government was intimate because it was small and rested on the support of probably no more than 5,000 key persons. The bureaucracy consisted of a handful of privy councillors at the top and possibly 500 paid civil servants at the bottom—the 15 members of the secretariat, the 265 clerks and custom officials of the treasury, a staff of 50 in the judiciary, and approximately 150 more scattered in other departments. Tudor government was not predominantly professional. Most of the work was done by unpaid amateurs: the sheriffs of the shires, the lord lieutenants of the counties, and, above all, the Tudor maids of all work, the 1,500 or so justices of the peace. Meanwhile, each of the 180 “corporate” towns and cities was governed by men chosen locally by a variety of means laid down in the particular royal charter each had been granted.
Smallness did not mean lack of government, for the 16th-century state was conceived of as an organic totality in which the possession of land carried with it duties of leadership and service to the throne, and the inferior part of society was obligated to accept the decisions of its elders and betters. The Tudors were essentially medieval in their economic and social philosophy. The aim of government was to curb competition and regulate life so as to attain an ordered and stable society in which all could share according to status. The Statute of Apprentices of 1563 embodied this concept, for it assumed the moralobligation of all men to work, the existence of divinely ordered social distinctions, and the need for the state to define and control all occupations in terms of their utility to society. The same assumption operated in the famous Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601—the need to ensure a minimum standard of livingto all men and women within an organic and noncompetitive society (see Poor Law). By 1600 poverty, unemployment, and vagrancy had become too widespread for the church to handle, and the state had to take over, instructing each parish to levy taxes to pay for poor relief and to provide work for the able-bodied, punishment for the indolent, and charity for the sick, the aged, and the disabled. The Tudor social ideal was to achieve a static class structure by guaranteeing a fixed labour supply, restricting social mobility, curbing economic freedom, and creating a kingdom in which subjects could fulfill their ultimate purpose in life—spiritual salvation, not material well-being.
Social reality, at least for the poor and powerless, was probably a far cry from the ideal, but for a few years Elizabethan England seemed to possess an extraordinary internal balance and external dynamism. In part the queen herself was responsible. She demanded no windows into men’s souls, and she charmed both great and small with her artistry and tact. In part, however, the Elizabethan Age was a success because men had at their disposal new and exciting areas, both of mind and geography, into which to channel their energies.
A revolution in reading (and to a lesser extent writing) was taking place. By 1640 a majority of men, and just possibly a majority of men and women, could read, and there were plenty of things for them to read. In the year that Henry VIII came to the throne (1509), the number of works licensed to be published was 38. In the year of Elizabeth’s accession (1558), it was 77; in the year of her death (1603), it was 328. In the year of Charles I’s execution (1649), the number had risen to 1,383. And by the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), it had reached 1,570. These figures do not include the ever-rising tide of broadsheets and ballads that were intended to be posted on the walls of inns and alehouses as well as in other public places. Given that a large proportion of the illiterate population spent at least part of their lives in service in homes with literate members and given that reading in the early modern period was frequently an aural experience—official documents being read aloud in market squares and parish churches and all manner of publications being read aloud to whole households—a very high proportion of the population had direct or indirect access to the printed word.
There was very little church building in the century after the Reformation, but there was an unprecedented growth of school building, with grammar schools springing up in most boroughs and in many market towns. By 1600 schools were provided for more than 10 percent of the adolescent population, who were taught Latin and given an introduction to Classical civilization and the foundations of biblical faith. There was also a great expansion of university education; the number of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge doubled in the 16th century, and the number of students went up fourfold to 1,200 by 1640 (see University of Oxford; University of Cambridge). The aim of Tudor education was less to teach the “three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) than to establish mind control: to drill children “in the knowledge of their duty toward God, their prince and all other[s] in their degree.” A knowledge of Latin and a smattering of Greek became, even more than elegant clothing, the mark of the social elite. The educated Englishman was no longer a cleric but a justice of the peace or a member of Parliament, a merchant or a landed gentleman who for the first time was able to express his economic, political, and religious dreams and his grievances in terms of abstract principles that were capable of galvanizingpeople into religious and political parties. Without literacy, the spiritual impact of the Puritans or, later, the formation of parties based on ideologies that engulfed the kingdom in civil war would have been impossible. So too would have been the cultural explosion that produced William Shakespeare,Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Francis Bacon, and John Donne.
Poets, scholars, and playwrights dreamed and put pen to paper. Adventurers responded differently; they went “a-voyaging.” From a kingdom that had once been known for its “sluggish security,” Englishmen suddenly turned to the sea and the world that was opening up around them. The first hesitant steps had been taken under Henry VII when John Cabot in 1497 sailed in search of a northwest route to China and as a consequence discovered Cape Breton Island. The search for Cathay became an economic necessity in 1550 when the wool trade collapsed and merchants had to find new markets for their cloth. In response, the Muscovy Company was established to trade with Russia; by 1588, 100 vessels a year were visiting the Baltic. Martin Frobisher made a series of voyages to northern Canada during the 1570s in the hope of finding gold and a shortcut to the Orient; John Hawkins encroached upon Spanish and Portuguese preserves and in 1562 sailed for Africa in quest of slaves to sell to West Indian plantation owners; and Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe (December 13, 1577–September 26, 1580) in search of the riches not only of the East Indies but also of Terra Australis, the great southern continent. Suddenly, Englishmen were on the move: Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his band of settlers set forth for Newfoundland (1583); Sir Walter Raleigh organized what became the equally ill-fated “lost colony” at Roanoke (1587–91); John Davis in his two small ships, the Moonshine and the Sunshine, reached 72° north (1585–87), the farthest north any Englishman had ever been; and the honourable East India Companywas founded to organize the silk and spice trade with the Orient on a permanent basis. The outpouring was inspired not only by the urge for riches but also by religion—the desire to labour in the Lord’s vineyard and to found in the wilderness a new and better nation. As it was said, Englishmen went forth “to seek new worlds for gold, for praise, for glory.” Even the dangers of the reign—the precariousness of Elizabeth’s throne and the struggle with Roman Catholic Spain—somehow contrived to generate a self-confidence that had been lacking under “the little Tudors.”
Mary, Queen of Scots
The first decade of Elizabeth’s reign was relatively quiet, but after 1568 three interrelated matters set the stage for the crisis of the century: the queen’s refusal to marry, the various plots to replace her with Maryof Scotland, and the religious and economic clash with Spain. Elizabeth Tudor’s virginity was the cause of great international discussion, for every bachelor prince of Europe hoped to win a throne through marriage with Gloriana (the queen of the fairies, as she was sometimes portrayed), and was the source of even greater domestic concern, for everyone except the queen herself was convinced that Elizabeth should marry and produce heirs. The issue was the cause of her first major confrontation with the House of Commons, which was informed that royal matrimony was not a subject for commoners to discuss. Elizabeth preferred maidenhood—it was politically safer and her most useful diplomatic weapon—but it gave poignancy to the intrigues of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary had been an unwanted visitor-prisoner in England ever since 1568, after she had been forced to abdicate her Scottish throne in favour of her 13-month-old son, James VI (later James I). She was Henry VIII’s grandniece and, in the eyes of many Roman Catholics and a number of political malcontents, the rightful ruler of England, for Mary of Scotland was a Roman Catholic. As the religious hysteria mounted, there was steady pressure put on Elizabeth to rid England of this dangerous threat, but the queen delayed a final decision for almost 19 years. In the end, however, she had little choice. Mary played into the hands of her religious and political enemies by involving herself in a series of schemes to unseat her cousin. One plot helped to trigger the rebellion of the northern earls in 1569. Another, the Ridolfi plot of 1571 (see Ridolfi, Roberto), called for an invasion by Spanish troops stationed in the Netherlands and for the removal of Elizabeth from the throne and resulted in the execution in 1572 of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, the ranking peer of the realm. Yet another, the Babington plot of 1586, led by Anthony Babington, allowed the queen’s ministers to pressure her into agreeing to the trial and execution of Mary for high treason.
The clash with Spain
Mary was executed on February 8, 1587. By then England had moved from cold war to open war against Spain. Philip II was the colossus of Europe and leader of resurgent Roman Catholicism. His kingdom was strong: Spanish troops were the best in Europe, Spain itself had been carved out of territory held by the infidel and still retained its Crusading zeal, and the wealth of the New World poured into the treasury at Madrid. Spanish preeminence was directly related to the weakness of France, which, ever since the accidental death of Henry II in 1559, had been torn by factional strife and civil and religious war. In response to this diplomatic and military imbalance, English foreign policy underwent a fundamental change. By the Treaty of Blois in 1572, England gave up its historic enmity with France, accepting by implication that Spain was the greater danger. It is difficult to say at what point a showdown between Elizabeth and her former brother-in-law became unavoidable—there were so many areas of disagreement—but the two chief points were the refusal of English merchants-cum-buccaneers to recognize Philip’s claims to a monopoly of trade wherever the Spanish flag flew throughout the world and the military and financial support given by the English to Philip’s rebellious and heretical subjects in the Netherlands.
The most blatant act of English poaching in Spanish imperial waters was Drake’s circumnavigation of the Earth, during which Spanish shipping was looted, Spanish claims to California ignored, and Spanish world dominion proved to be a paper empire. But the encounter that really poisoned Anglo-Iberian relations was the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa in September 1568, where a small fleet captained by Hawkins and Drake was ambushed and almost annihilated through Spanish perfidy. Only Hawkins in the Minion and Drake in the Judith escaped. The English cried foul treachery, but the Spanish dismissed the action as sensible tactics when dealing with pirates. Drake and Hawkins never forgot or forgave, and it was Hawkins who, as treasurer of the navy, began to build the revolutionary ships that would later destroy the old-fashioned galleons of the Spanish Armada.
If the English never forgave Philip’s treachery at San Juan de Ulúa, the Spanish never forgot Elizabeth’s interference in the Netherlands, where Dutch Protestants were in full revolt. At first, aid had been limited to money and the harbouring of Dutch ships in English ports, but, after the assassination of the Protestant leader, William I, in 1584, the position of the rebels became so desperate that in August 1585 Elizabeth sent over an army of 6,000 under the command of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Reluctantly, Philip decided on war against England as the only way of exterminating heresy and disciplining his subjects in the Netherlands. Methodically, he began to build a fleet of 130 vessels, 31,000 men, and 2,431 cannons to hold naval supremacy in the English Channel long enough for Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, and his army, stationed at Dunkirk, to cross over to England.
Nothing Elizabeth could do seemed to be able to stop the Armada Catholica. She sent Drake to Spain in April 1587 in a spectacular strike at that portion of the fleet forming at Cádiz, but it succeeded only in delaying the sailing date. That delay, however, was important, for Philip’s admiral of the ocean seas, the veteran Álvaro de Bazán, marqués de Santa Cruz, died, and the job of sailing the Armada was given to Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, duque de Medina-Sidonia, who was invariably seasick and confessed that he knew more about gardening than war. What ensued was not the new commander’s fault. He did the best he could in an impossible situation, for Philip’s Armada was invincible in name only. It was technologically and numerically outclassed by an English fleet of close to 200. Worse, its strategic purpose was grounded on a fallacy: that Parma’s troops could be conveyed to England. The Spanish controlled no deepwater port in the Netherlands in which the Armada’s great galleons and Parma’s light troop-carrying barges could rendezvous. Even the Deity seemed to be more English than Spanish, and in the end the fleet, buffeted by gales, was dashed to pieces as it sought to escape home via the northern route around Scotland and Ireland. Of the 130 ships that had left Spain, perhaps 85 crept home; 10 were captured, sunk, or driven aground by English guns, 23 were sacrificed to wind and storm, and 12 others were “lost, fate unknown.”