Saturday 5 December 2020

What Happened Next?

Two of the great dangers of reading any given bit of history are the questions ‘what happened before?’ and ‘what happened next?’ As my loyal reader will be aware, I have got a little interested (Do all those books represent a ‘little interest’? - ed.) in the Domesday Book and hence the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy, Bastard and Conqueror.

The astute reader will have noticed that I have, to a small extent, answered the first question by reading Stenton and one or two other works which have filled in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking background to the invasions, although I have still not quite got my head around the complexities of the politics. So the second question reared its ugly head.

In an effort to find out what happened next, I bought and read a (second hand but excellent condition) this:

Bartlett, R. (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075 - 1225. Oxford: OUP.

This is a weighty tome in the ‘New Oxford History of England’ series; Stenton, of course, being in the ‘Oxford History of England’ series. So my engagement with the scholarship has moved up a gear.

Unfortunately, Bartlett (which is a very good book and one to which I shall return, possibly in a future post) assumes that you already know something about the period, which I do not, or at least, did not. I am a firm believer that you cannot do thematic history without some idea at least of the narrative sweep of the period in which you are interested. I, therefore, cast about for a narrative for a bear of little brain, and found this:

Cole, T. (2018). After the Conquest: The Divided Realm 1066 - 1135. Stroud: Amberley.

You might recall that I was perhaps a little sniffy about Cole’s book on the Norman Conquest, but then I am perhaps a little sniffy about the Norman Conquest per se. You might also notice that I am studying the period the wrong way around by my own precepts: the narrative after the thematic. All I can say is that I thought there might be a little bit of narrative in Bartlett (there was, but not enough for me to get a handle on it) so I decided to go for a story. As someone says somewhere (I think it might be Aquinas) there is a way of discovery and a way of teaching, and they are not the same.

Anyway, both Cole and Bartlett make the same point. When BtB went down to a probable equestrian accident in 1087 in Normandy, he left his sons with several problems. Firstly, of course, there was the problem of each other – Robert, William and Henry. William gave Robert Normandy, in spite of the fact he kept rebelling against his father, William England and Henry £5000, which was a lot of money but no land. There was little in the way of a tradition of primogeniture at the time, so no-one could really claim that Robert should have got the lot (although it did not stop Robert, of course, from time to time).

There was also the problem of ruling both England and Normandy either separately or together. There were Anglo-Norman lords who held lands in both places, and who therefore were forced to pay homage to both the Duke of Normandy and the King of England. This was fine so long as the King and Duke were the same person, but when, as in 1087, the roles were split, there were inevitably issues arising, both between the brothers and between one of them and a vassal who considered another to be more important or useful to them than their liege lord.

To this mess of pottage should be added the fact that the Duke of Normandy owed homage to the King of France while no King of England was going to be seen dead paying any sort of homage to the said monarch. Further, we can add issues between England, Scotland, and the various Welsh kingdoms as the Normans penetrated Wales and the fact that the Norman barons kept raiding, fighting and generally causing mayhem within Normandy, requiring strong leadership which, in Duke Robert, they did not seem to get.

As you can imagine, it all got a bit complicated, especially when the crusades were added in. Robert, on the losing end of a war with his brothers agreed to pawn Normandy to William and go on the First Crusade. Henry and William proceeded to fall out and patch things up until William (Rufus) was on the receiving end of a hunting accident in the New Forest. As Cole points out this was a kind of convenient accident for Henry, as he was in the same hunting party and managed to get to Winchester and secure the royal treasury and be crowned King of England more or less before his brother’s body hit the ground.

Cole is generous enough to suggest that there might be other culprits for staging the tragic accident. After all, medieval kings were never the most popular of people around. The King of France was by no means displeased to find William no longer a factor in Normandy, while Robert, although a long way away, might also have supposed there was an opportunity. Henry, the man on the spot, took full advantage but was then faced with the same problem of Normandy which had baffled his siblings (and, for that matter, his father).

Henry solved the problem by conquering Normandy himself and capturing Robert, who was held in prison for the rest of his life. His reign saw the starting of the English Common Law tradition as well as a number of other innovations and his realm of England at least was broadly settled, although used as a cash cow for military adventures in France, and for marrying his daughter, Matilda to the Holy Roman Emperor’s son. However, the drowning of Henry’s son William in the ‘White Ship’, an affair of a great deal of drink and some rocks outside the harbour left a problem for the next reign. Would Henry’s nephew, Stephen, or his daughter get crowned next.

Now, as they say, read on….

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